Sunday 18 March 2018

A victory for love and loyalty

Eamonn Sweeney

What have Celtic, Rangers, Roma, Sevilla, Spartak Moscow and Panathinaikos got in common? They're not as good as Shamrock Rovers.

Or at least they weren't on Thursday night when, as the aforementioned giants exited the Europa League, the Hoops produced one of the gutsiest, most stirring performances you're ever likely to see from an Irish team in any sport to win 2-1 away to Partizan Belgrade and qualify for the competition's group stages.

It was a night when you could feel history being made, paradigms shifting and moulds breaking. There was a genuinely epic feel about the performance. After a 1-1 draw in Tallaght, they were given little chance of progressing and when they fell behind in the 34th minute it looked as though the script was following predictable lines.

But though they frequently bent and buckled under the Belgrade onslaught, Hoops never broke and from the moment that Pat Sullivan equalised in the 58th minute with a volley which would have graced any league in the world, you could see the realisation that the unlikely had become possible flooding through them. There was something moving about the sight of a League of Ireland team giving as good as they got in a big European stadium as the likes of their great Grobbelaarian goalkeeper Ryan Thompson, centre-back colossus Craig Sives, future Irish international left-back Enda Stephens, tireless anchor man Stephen Rice and super sub Steven O'Donnell, who slotted home the winning penalty in the second period of extra-time, reached heights they may not even have suspected they were capable of themselves, miraculously seeming to grow stronger as the game moved into extra-time with the temperature up in the 30s.

Excuse me. I'll be back in a minute. Thanks.

You know what? That humble pie is pretty tasty. Which is just as well considering that a couple of weeks ago I bemoaned the fact that European football was a dead end for the league given that our teams hadn't a hope of qualifying for the grooup stages. In my defence, Hoops manager Michael O'Neill probably felt the same way, as he admitted after the victory that he'd felt the game was a bridge too far for his team. As he pointed out, one player on the Partizan team was earning as much as the combined wage bill of his own side.

This time last year the Serbian champions were knocking Anderlecht out of the Champions League. Two years ago, they beat that year's eventual champions Shakhtar Donetsk in the group stages of the Europa League. Their team on Thursday contained five players who have played at full international level for Serbia. With their 32,000 capacity stadium they seemed to inhabit a different footballing world from Shamrock Rovers. Turns out they didn't.

Thursday was an epochal night not just for Shamrock Rovers but for the League of Ireland. Because while the Hoops are an excellent side, they're not some kind of super team standing head and shoulders above their local rivals. At the moment they're engaged in a thrilling four-way joust for the league title with Derry City, Sligo Rovers and St Patrick's Athletic.

And Thursday's win did not come completely out of the blue. In 2008, a last-minute missed sitter stopped Drogheda United from knocking out Dynamo Kiev who subsequently reached the Europa League semi-finals. The following year only an 87th-minute goal prevented Bohemians from advancing at the expense of a Casino Salzburg team who went on to top their Europa League group, scoring double wins over Lazio and Villarreal in the process. Even this season Sligo Rovers will look back ruefully on the two disallowed goals in their Europa League away first leg against the very strong Ukrainian side Vorskla Poltava, who won 2-0 on aggregate.

But knocking on the door is one thing, breaking it down is another. And while the victory over Partizan was founded on hard work and courage, the difference between gallant defeat and famous victory was two moments of sublime quality. Gary McCabe's superb dribble through the visiting defence in the home leg, and Sullivan's rocket in Belgrade, were the kind of goals which would be shown round the world if they came from one of Europe's elite leagues. And what they did was confirm something which every League of Ireland fan knows -- that there is no shortage of quality in our league and that our faith in the game is repaid every season by transcendent moments of skill. Sullivan's goal was great but it was far from unique. There are plenty of other players in the League who can do, and have done, something similar.

This is worth stressing because one of the great puzzles of Irish sport is the obsession so many people have with pouring scorn on the League of Ireland. You can forgive apathy; if you don't want to watch domestic soccer, fair enough, you're missing out but it's your choice. But it's the antipathy which makes no sense, the constant urge to denigrate a league you don't even watch. The League of Ireland is a bit like Socialism. It mightn't have many supporters these days but for its enemies any number is too much. Perhaps it's something to do with a guilty conscience.

That's why you end up with nonsense notions like the idea, touted as the acme of progressive thinking, a couple of years back that the League's salvation lay in a union with the Irish League. In reality, the Irish League had nothing to offer the League of Ireland because it operates at a much, much lower level. They are ranked 20 places below us in Europe which means the Irish League bears the same relationship to the League of Ireland as our league does to the Portuguese League. This kind of guff comes about because there's an idea that the League of Ireland is terminally ill. But Thursday's triumph follows on the heels of an FAI Cup final which attracted 36,000 fans to the Aviva Stadium. So it's time people stopped condescending to Irish football. Because while Shamrock Rovers will be flying the flag for the League of Ireland in the Europa League group stages, the Scottish

League won't be represented at all. Chances are that Shamrock Rovers might well have beaten either Celtic or Rangers. And that Derry, Sligo and St Pat's would have done better at home to Spurs than the Hearts side which lost 5-0.

Yet the Scottish League is treated with seriousness in the Irish media, as though there are matters of great footballing importance decided there. In reality, it has far more in common with the League of Ireland than it has with the Premier League. The crowds who flock to watch Old Firm games in the nation's pubs would scoff at the idea that they might see better football from Shamrock Rovers and Derry City. But they'd be wrong to do so.

The recession has affected the League of Ireland, but not profoundly because it almost seemed to stand at one remove from the Celtic Tiger era. There was no sport less attuned to the zeitgeist of those money-worshipping days than the League of Ireland, with its lack of corporate boxes, its unashamedly working-class roots, its stubborn refusal to agree that what Irish football really needed was a Premier League franchise which would wipe out Shamrock Rovers and all the other clubs like them, clubs whose traditions are no less valued by their fans than those of the country's GAA or rugby teams. But the League of Ireland abides. And now Shamrock Rovers have taken it on to the big stage.

It is a victory for Michael O'Neill and everyone else at the great club. But it is also a victory for anyone who's soldiered through the years at Terryland Park, St Mel's, Dalymount, The Showgrounds, Turner's Cross and all the other defiant redoubts of the little league that can.

We are no mean people.

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