Brendan Rodgers: It's harder for Irish players to hit big time
Shamrock Rovers 0 Liverpool 4
THE majority of the 42,517 crowd that descended on Dublin 4 last night had bought their tickets in anticipation that a new addition to the trophy cabinet would be on show. A new away shirt was never going to provide the same excitement levels.
Still, when they splashed the cash, they expected to see Liverpool inflict a beating on Shamrock Rovers and that part of the bargain was delivered by a cast of characters who don't yet know if they will feature in the attempt to go one better next season.
This was an exhibition, although, by the end, attrition was the word that sprung to mind as Brendan Rodgers' youthful subs looked to make the final scoreline even more emphatic.
"They gave us real energy," said the Northern Irishman, who was thrilled by man-of-the-match Jordan Ibe and goalscoring sub Jack Dunn and overwhelmed by the huge turn-out of fans from this part of the world.
"It just amazes me this club, the real institution that it is," he enthused. "It's what makes it what it is. This is a real institution. The island is full of Liverpool supporters."
To League of Ireland fans, like the Rovers hardcore who tried their best to make a racket in the South Stand, this occasion was moreso symptomatic of a curious sporting culture when it comes to supporting football teams.
A stadium predominantly packed with Irish people cheering on a English/Welsh/Brazilian/Italian/Spanish/Australian hybrid against 11 local lads is slightly strange, but then the red-shirted fans don't base their football allegiances on nationality. It would be a surprise if the attendance at Sunday week's international friendly with Turkey reached this level; at every possible opportunity the stadium announcer provided an update on ticket availability.
There's little to be gained from lecturing as that becomes a turn-off. Telling prospective customers they're living their life the wrong way isn't always the most effective recruitment strategy. Irish football's challenge has always been to try and find a way of co-existing with the inevitable mass interest in the Premier League giants on our doorstep and that enduring battle will go on.
On the eve of the game, several Rovers players had admitted they were huge Liverpool fans. Ciaran Kilduff even veered into the use of the word "we" as he discussed the Reds' dramatic collapse at Crystal Palace.
For the League of Ireland players, the majority of whom exist on one-year contracts, this was a unique opportunity, with only Stephen McPhail – who was extremely comfortable in his 45-minute cameo – having extensive experience in this sphere. This was also a lucrative exercise for the Tallaght hierarchy, offsetting the financial damage of failing to qualify for Europe.
For Rodgers' side, it was an express visit, effectively the reverse journey that many of their Irish fans make to Anfield on a regular basis; an early flight in the morning and home in the evening.
Fans gathered around Ballsbridge more than two hours before kick-off and an optimistic contingent lingered near the overground entrances to the stadium around Lansdowne Lane hoping to catch sight of the Liverpool team-bus that actually made its way to the dressing-room via the underground tunnel on the opposite side of the stadium.
The Reds, modelling next season's yellow away kit, did bring the first-team squad members that have no World Cup plans but they didn't actually involve them all in the kickabout, with Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel sitting it out due to wear and tear.
This is understandable after a long season, of course, but it was a bit of a let-down for some younger fans that had different expectations when the bulk of these tickets were sold a month ago. The high-profile trio were introduced to the crowd at the interval – accompanied by a cringeworthy appeal for a hip-hip-hooray – with Robbie Fowler then rolled out for one of the biggest cheers of the night. Gary Twigg didn't quite get the same welcome.
Lucas and Joe Allen were the two most recognisable faces in a starting XI that mixed fringe players and academy products, including Belfast's Ryan McLaughlin, a right-full who is yet to decide on his international future. Rodgers was later asked about the dearth of Irish faces coming through the ranks.
"It's a lot more difficult now," he conceded. "A lot of them (Irish lads) start the apprenticeship at 16 but even then it's too late as a lot of boys across the water are beginning at the age of eight and by the time they're 16 they've been trained technically, tactically, physically and mentally and then they're ready to step into full-time football."
The gulf in class between Rodgers' selection and a near full-strength Rovers side was apparent from the outset and large numbers of the crowd were still making their way through the rush-hour traffic when the English giants grabbed an eighth-minute lead.
Ibe, just back from a loan stint at Birmingham, relished the wide expanses of the Aviva and skipped down the left before dragging the ball back into the area where Iago Aspas was on hand to dispatch the final touch. When the visitors moved up the gears, Trevor Croly's charges struggled to keep pace.
Nevertheless, as the first half progressed and the tempo dropped a little, Rovers grew in confidence and almost levelled. Kilduff forced a save from ex-Shels loanee Brad Jones with a close-range header, and Ryan Brennan was inches away from levelling matters with a glancing effort that came back off the inside of the post.
That chance arose from a break that followed a Fabio Borini miss at the other end and the Italian, just back from a successful loan spell at Sunderland, atoned for that error by adding a second goal two minutes into a second half peppered by subs, with Allen and Lucas withdrawn at the break.
Aspas, who had a season to forget, had a lob brilliantly denied by sub 'keeper Craig Hyland. He was then central in the build-up to Martin Kelly making it three with 15 minutes to go.
With both benches emptied at this juncture, it was even more scattered and fresh Liverpool legs exploited the space with 19-year-old Dunn completing the scoring with a confident finish that contrasted with Rovers' dithering at the death that might have reduced the deficit. Their only consolation will be the substantial paycheque.
Shamrock Rovers – Murphy (Hyland 63), Madden, McGuinness (O'Connor 75), Cornwall, Byrne (Osam 75); Robinson (Finn 75), McPhail (Sheppard 45); McCabe (Kelly 63), Brennan (Bayly 45), Waters (O'Connor 45); Kilduff (Zayed 63)
Liverpool – Jones, McLaughlin (Randall 63), Smith, Kelly, Paez (Williams 79); Lucas (Teixeira 45), Allen (Brannagan 45), Coady; Ibe, Borini (Dunn 79), Aspas (Pieterson 79)
Ref – P Sutton (Clare)