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Europa run helps Hoops further their education

DESPITE the likely scenario that they will have to begin the search for a new manager following the expected departure of Michael O'Neill this week, Shamrock Rovers will always look back on this season as the time when they bacame trail-breakers for Irish clubs in the group stages of the Europa League.

They have found the going tough, but chief executive Jonathan Roche is hopeful the lessons learned will benefit the Irish game in the years ahead.

"Hopefully, we'll improve and other clubs will improve in Europe, and our co-efficient will build so that, in four or five years' time, an Irish team will be seeded in the third stage of the Champions League," he said. "That would make qualifying for the Europa League easier, and that's vitally important.

"Next year we should be seeded again into the second qualifying round, which means if we win one game we are guaranteed another two. In two or three years' time, if we continue to win that first game, we could be seeded in the third qualifying round, and then we might meet someone like Shamrock Rovers!"

Rovers, who host Tottenham Hotspur on Thursday in what now seems certain to be O'Neill's final game in charge, have yet to record a point, but they haven't disgraced themselves in what is a very tough group.

"What people don't seem to realise," explained Roche, "is that we are competing in the second biggest event of any sport in Europe. We have done very well so far, scoring in all but one game, and we've been competitive in most matches."

Rovers would like nothing better than to break their duck against Spurs, but the London club have a big incentive as they are in danger of missing out on the knockout stage -- if they fail to record a big win -- and even that mightn't be enough depending on the result of the PAOK-Rubin Kazan tie.

On the lessons learned from their European odyssey, Roche pinpoints two.

"The biggest learning curve was the Juventus game last year. In most cases clubs look after their visitors, but Juventus do everything for themselves, and they said it's best not to be relying on anybody else. So we took that on board, and now we travel with all our own footballs and training gear.

"London was another learning curve, because of the size of the place, and we had never played there before. Spurs helped us and advised us to stay outside the city because of the traffic. We had intended to stay in a hotel in Regent's Park, but they told us it could take two and a half hours to get from there, so we stayed where a lot of the FA Cup teams stay.

Finally, Roche was taken by the amount of respect shown to Shamrock Rovers by the other clubs and by UEFA officials.

"We handed Partizan Belgrade their worst night in six years and yet their fans gave us a standing ovation, and the directors organised the trip to Monaco the following morning for Noel Byrne and myself. I didn't know we had to go to the draw, but they advised us to go and organised it for us."

Sunday Indo Sport