Gary O’Neill does not want to come across the wrong way when he makes the admission that part of him really enjoyed Shamrock Rovers’ trip to Hungary this week despite the outcome.
Perhaps that illustrates the difference between a Europa League play-off tie with the cushion of group stage football in the back pocket and the do-or-die Conference League encounter with Flora Tallinn that brought such crushing disappointment 12 months ago.
The Kerryman is an avid football fan, openly admitting to watching games of all levels to fill his days. A few weeks back, before he knew that Rovers would end up playing Ferencvaros, he found a link to watch the Hungarian champions dismantle the Slovan Bratislava side that the Hoops faced in the Champions League in 2021.
Therefore, he knew Rovers would face a quality outfit on Thursday and they were pulled apart at the Groupama Arena, the 4-0 result a fair reflection of the balance of play and also highlighting how Irish sides need to be at full strength and hit their maximum levels to compete with that level of company.
The lesson gave O’Neill a taste for more and it’s easier to swallow when he knows it’s coming in the months ahead. As a 27-year-old established League of Ireland player, these European tests are his chance to sample another football world.
“It’s a weird one,” he says. “You’re in the changing room after the game and you’re talking amongst each other and you’re actually saying you enjoyed it. You enjoyed the pressure of what it is, the atmosphere, a proper stadium. They’re a top side and when we played one loose one, all of a sudden they’re passing the ball into our box. That’s the different levels of football.
“I think for me it’s just pace – the pace that they play with and the pace they have in the final third. They were so comfortable out of possession because they knew they had the pace, that trap so they were ready to go on one loose pass.”
O’Neill looked at the bigger picture when explaining why he wasn’t too downbeat in the aftermath. He’s at an age where he’s soaking in these experience.
“My favourite part of ties is actually coming the night before, seeing the stadium, training with your friends and essentially, it’s just great,” he continued. “When we arrived to the stadium (on Thursday) and walked out, their Ultras section was starting to fill up already. Nights like this is why you play for Rovers.”
“I guess the positive we can take is we achieved the goal we set out to take at the start of the year of getting into a group stage. It’s something I always wanted to do in my career and speaking to Alan Mannus over the last few days, it’s something he (Mannus is 40) wanted to do before he retires.
“Now on a personal pride thing, you don’t want to come here and roll over and just treat it as a kind of free hit, which is probably is – a free bash and getting a Europa League group stage. But that is the positive we can take out of it, we have the Conference to fall back on.”
O’Neill knows that it is the champions’ status that has made it possible, noting the difficult ties other Irish teams faced through the main route. It’s why tomorrow’s league meeting with Dundalk has never been too far from the mind and Stephen Bradley was happy to work his bench once Ferencvaros were three ahead and avoid adding to their growing injury list.
Good work would be undone if the Hoops relinquished their crown this term and Rovers are still sore they had to play Derry just three days after returning from North Macedonia last week. They dug in for a scoreless draw and with six Conference League Thursdays to come, it’s going to be a frenetic sprint to the end of the season.
“It’s nuts, it’s a hot topic from what I’ve seen in the media,” says O’Neill.
“Last week we tried to push it back and the league for whatever reason, they tried to make it somewhat interesting – the title race – so they were reluctant to call it off for us. Listen it’s what you’re at this club to do.
“The top teams in England, they all play two games a week, we have to become accustomed to it. It’s not looking like the schedule is going to get easier from here until the end of the season. We were talking to our strength and conditioning coach, it is a game every four days for the rest of the year. It’s a tough schedule but that’s what you signed up for.
“We’re flying the flag now and it comes off the back of our domestic success. Sunday is important, I can’t stress it enough. We have to be ready to meet Dundalk head on.”