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Rovers rue Greek tragedy

MORE PATS on the back and praise for Shamrock Rovers after their courageous and committed display in Greece last night.

But at this stage, the Hoops are getting fed up of moral victories -- they want to have points on the board in the Europa League instead of just having nice things said about them, with passport stamps and swapped jerseys as souvenirs.

It's the old Irish belief, attacked by Roy Keane on a temper-filled night in Amsterdam 11 years ago, whether to celebrate something that is not a win. The Moral Victory.

There were a lot of positives for the Irish game in this old port city of Thessalonika, even though Rovers lost 2-1 to PAOK and are stuck at the bottom of the Group A table, three games played and nul points.

To put it in context, one of the other clubs who are still without a point from four matches in this competition is AEK Athens, a club whose resources and wealth are in another world compared to Shamrock Rovers'.

That's despite the obvious financial and social problems in Greece at present now, the scenes of rioting and violence on TV screens from yesterday's strikes and demonstrations enough to chill the soul, raising the question of where Ireland as a country would be today if we had gone the Greek way and just marched and defaulted when faced with the question of how to deal with the big bad wolves of the troika.

No trouble on the streets of Thessalonika, thankfully, and only a warm welcome for the Rovers fans who managed to get here despite strikes and airport closures.

Rovers have achieved something remarkable in simply qualifying for the group stages. They have already made a mark by scoring in their games away to Spurs and PAOK -- but the players are hungry to win games, not friends.

"We're disappointed to come away without a result but I think that's a good sign, the fact that we're not happy with losing," said Rovers' Kerry-born winger, Billy Dennehy, after a game where he played out of his skin, his best game in Europe for Rovers so far, Dennehy having performed underwhelmingly in previous European matches.

"I'm very disappointed, we deserved something from the game. I think we've shown that, though this is a very high level of football, we can compete with big teams.

"Looking at how the game was going last night, we could have easily folded after PAOK scored; we're at the end of our season, we're away from home and were a goal down. Some teams would have crumbled but we have a lot of character in the team, we stood up to them, kept playing.

"That's been the case all season, we have been up against it at times but we have come back fighting. We did ourselves proud last night, it's just a pity that we didn't get a result.

"It's all well and good when you play well and get good reviews in the papers, but we want to get points on the board. We don't want to finish this tournament with zero points, that'd be hard to take."

Heading into the game, only one result looked likely. PAOK had all the aces: home advantage -- and their 15,000 fans are a remarkable asset to have; a boisterous, noisy and beguiling bunch who love their football and love singing, their bouts of organised balladry, choreographed dancing and flag-waving a sight to behold.

They did all the things that the killjoys in the FAI try to stop fans doing at games in Ireland like (shock-horror) standing up instead of sitting down, setting off flares and bringing in provocative banners ("IMF, Get The F*** Out of Here" was one English-language banner last night, hard to see something like that get past FAI stewards who once stopped St Pats fans from bringing a banner that said "Never Relegated" into a derby with Shamrock Rovers, in case it was deemed provocative to the Hoops).

And just 11 minutes into the game, the home fans got what they came for, a lead goal from PAOK's classy midfielder Costin Lazar, the Romanian picking up on a poor clearance from Dan Murray -- who otherwise had a great game -- and firing past Ryan Thompson.

PAOK kept up the pressure after that and it took some very solid defending from the likes of Murray and full back Pat Sullivan to restrict them to one goal, but restrict them Rovers did.

And three minutes into the second half the home fans and PAOK's Romanian coach Laszlo Boloni were shocked when Karl Sheppard got Rovers level with a nifty header from Dennehy's corner.

"Going out onto the pitch, the manager told me to be positive when I get the ball, and that's what I tried to do, to get crosses and shots in and I was happy to play more of a role for the team," Dennehy explained.

"And I was happy to make a mark on the game with an assist for the goal. That's nice to have on my record now, putting in the cross for a goal in the Europa League against such a good side. Sometimes they come off for you and just fall for someone's head -- like it did for Karl last night -- and sometimes they don't come off but it was some good movement by Shep and he did really well to get his head on the end of it."

It stayed at 1-1 for 15 minutes, as the home fans got slightly nervy, but PAOK's players held theirs and the sublime Portuguese Vierinha got them back in front, taking the ball from Vladimir Ivic and beating Thompson.

Rovers made changes after that as players like Chris Turner and Sheppard succumbed to injury and fatigue, but by the closing minutes Rovers had done all they could and PAOK held on to win.

"We have to get our heads right for UCD on Monday now," Dennehy added. "These European games are great to play in but the league is our bread and butter, we all want to win it again. On a personal level I'm very hungry to win another league medal, so the next two league games are massive for us, especially as we can win it on Monday."