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Hoop dreams

Last autumn, Shamrock Rovers went where no Irish club had gone before. They qualified for the group stages of a major European competition in a memorable year where they travelled close to 14,000 miles and played 12 matches against foreign opposition. Soccer correspondent Daniel McDonnell was present for every game, and reflects on one of the biggest sports stories of 2011 with a diary of their amazing campaign

July 12, 2011

Champions League Second Round Qualifier 1st Leg

Venue: Tallaght Stadium, Dublin

Result: Shamrock Rovers 1 Flora Tallinn 0

IF a chap named Valeri Minkenen had showed more conviction on a sunny July evening in Tallaght, then the review of Shamrock Rovers' European season might have ended here.

But when the Estonian champions won a first-half penalty, the midfielder's tame effort was saved by Alan Mannus.

Then, another Northern Irishman, midfielder Chris Turner, burrowed into the box to grab the only goal of the night, a welcome change of publicity for a man who was serving a domestic ban for abusive comments made to Derry's Eamon Zayed on the same pitch weeks earlier.

July 19, 2011

Champions League Second Round Qualifier 2nd Leg

Venue: Tallinn, Estonia

Result: Flora Tallinn 0 Shamrock Rovers 0

MICHAEL O'NEILL's staple travelling diet is an efficient 4-5-1 formation, and it was applied to the scorching heat of Tallinn.

Finishing the job with a scoreless draw guaranteed €500,000 from UEFA and two further ties. Hundreds of travelling fans were more interested in the game than the locals, but everyone in the capital knew the result later that night, however, as the Irish hordes celebrated.

O'Neill allowed his players to join the party, especially as it was goodbye for Mannus, an integral member of the group who was off to St Johnstone. He was mobbed in the Molly Malone, pleased to be leaving on such a high note. He didn't know that the ceiling-shattering moments lay over the horizon.

July 27, 2011

Champions League Third Round Qualifier 1st Leg

Venue: Copenhagen, Denmark

Result: FC Copenhagen 1 Shamrock Rovers 0

COPENHAGEN was a stop-off point on the way home from Tallinn and that worked out well for O'Neill and his new assistant, Jim Magilton. They realised they could stay a night and take in a pre-season friendly with West Ham.

Throughout the campaign, they were helped with their homework by well-regarded young sports scientist Padraig Phibbs, who worked for modest financial gain to provide detailed reports. He sits in the press box for Rovers games, studying and charting every movement.

"Jim tells me they spent £100,000 a year at Ipswich on Prozone analysis," said O'Neill, enviously.

Nevertheless, Rovers were well prepared. Copenhagen took a fourth-minute lead at the 38,000-capacity Parken Stadium, but were frustrated thereafter.

The only downside was the loss of Ken Oman to a knee injury. He was wheeled through the airport ahead of the flight home. Club captain Dan Murray, who had been rumoured to be on his way out of the club, was back in the game.

August 2, 2011

Champions League Third Round Qualifier 2nd Leg

Venue: Tallaght Stadium

Result: Shamrock Rovers 0 FC Copenhagen 2

THE natives sensed a giant killing. In an RTE studio constructed at the corner of the ground, Liam Brady suggested that Copenhagen were well short of the side that had reached the last 16 of the previous renewal.

Rovers started like they believed it, and a Turner header smashed the crossbar.

That momentum was lost, and Copenhagen capitalised, with a deflected goal putting them in control and pricking the life from a carnival atmosphere.

The Danish hierarchy had told their Rovers counterparts at a pre-match dinner that the Champions League was worth €40m to their turnover. Rovers minds turned to the Europa League.

August 18, 2011

Europa League Play-Off Round 1st Leg

Venue: Tallaght Stadium

Result: Shamrock Rovers 1 Partizan Belgrade 1

Apprehension hung over Tallaght Stadium. The parachute into the Europa League landed with a tough opponent, another Champions League loser who were 180 minutes away from their fall-back option.

Partizan kicked off with purpose and should have been out of sight by the interval, but they only had a 13th- minute strike to show for their dominance.

O'Neill and Magilton shuffled the pack with half an hour left, switching to a diamond 4-4-2, with local favourite Gary McCabe in the hole behind the front pair.

It worked spectacularly when McCabe instigated a quick one-two with Gary Twigg and finished with aplomb. Pandemonium ensued. Angry Partizan coach Aleksandar Stanojevic promised that his men wouldn't be so generous seven days later.

August 25, 2011

Europa League Play-Off Round 2nd Leg

Venue: Belgrade, Serbia

Result: Partizan Belgrade 1 Shamrock Rovers 2 (AET)

CIARAN Kilduff still thinks about Belgrade most days.

"The best night of my career, although I was only a sub," he smiles.

The tall striker's contribution to a remarkable night was a tribute to the measured tactical approach in searing Serbian heat.

The management could have lost their heads when Pat Sullivan's goal of a lifetime stunned the passionate Grobari and brought the underdogs level on the night and on aggregate.

O'Neill resisted the temptation to use all his reserves in normal time, despite a Partizan siege. Rovers kept their shape, and unlikely hero, the Jamaican half-Rastafarian, half-Christian Ryan Thompson gathered when called upon.

Extra-time came and, as Partizan nerves grew, the exhausted Twigg was replaced by an energetic, physical Kilduff, who gave the Hoops defence an out ball. In the 112th minute, Enda Stevens picked him out with the kind of delivery that secured the young left-full a move to Aston Villa. Kilduff bounded into the box, away from tired legs, and released a shot that Radisa Ilic could only parry into the path of fellow sub Karl Sheppard, who went down under pressure from the 'keeper. Penalty. Another sub, Stephen O'Donnell, stepped forward.

In the stands, the 43 Rovers fans held their breath. They were shadowed by police on every step of the journey, a consequence of the horrors endured by previous visiting fans. Every Irish visitor who entered Belgrade airport was taken into a private room and given the mobile phone number of the policeman to call if they endured hassle.

So, in extraordinary circumstances, they naturally wondered what would happen if O'Donnell scored. Down on the pitch, the Galwegian was in his own world.

One of the Partizan players had angrily booted the ball away and when it came back, the referee fussed over whether it was on the spot.

"I was just focused on getting the ball on target," he recalls. "The cardinal sin would have been to blaze it wide."

He committed no such error. Rovers were in the promised land.

At the full-time whistle, the Grobari vented fury at their own. But as the Shamrock Rovers players eventually walked towards the tunnel, the boos turned to applause. Respect went both ways as Irish players threw jerseys into Serbian hands.

"The enormity never really dawned on me until afterwards," recalls O'Donnell.

He turned on the phone to hundreds of messages. As they watched the highlights on TV back in their hotel, they had a slight sense of the ripple they had caused. Sullivan was already a YouTube sensation. The scale of the achievement hit home the following night in Terminal 1, where hundreds were on hand to say thanks.

Club chairman Jonathan Roche and secretary Noel Byrne were absent from the homecoming. Instead, they were in Monaco, short of a night's sleep, after a mad dash from Belgrade with the help of Partizan to make the group-stage draw. They missed the moment when they landed Tottenham, Rubin Kazan and PAOK, but arrived to a whole new world.

UEFA handed them tickets for the Super Cup final between Barcelona and Porto, but they failed to see the game out. They were exhausted, with so much to think about. Rovers were €1m richer, a mere six years after being saved from extinction.

Sleep was needed, but no dreams were necessary.

September 15, 2011

Europa League Group A

Venue: Tallaght Stadium

Result: Shamrock Rovers 0 Rubin Kazan 3

MICK Kearns missed Belgrade, but felt he was in the next best place.

The lifelong Hoops fan and former director of the club met his extended group of Rovers pals in their usual post-match haunt, the Pines on Whitehall Road, near Terenure, and watched in amazement. It was only in the shower the following morning that it sunk in. He burst into tears.

"It was for the people who kept the club alive when the Kilcoynes left us with just the bibs and training cones," he reflected.

There was little time to bask in the glory. When the club, with admirable support from the FAI and UEFA, made the correct decision to stage the group games in Tallaght, it meant extra work for Kearns. His company are the electrical contractors for the stadium. On the morning of the first Europa League game, he was there at 6.0am to open up the facilities so Ireland AM could broadcast live.

Then, it was a case of checking that the lines of communication for a wave of foreign media were up to the task, with his three staff working in tandem with the UEFA technicians.

"There were a few teething issues at first and it was fairly intense," he recalls.

The learning process extended to the field. O'Neill pointed out beforehand that of the 64 teams in the group stages, they were the only one to play a league match 72 hours earlier, a hard-fought draw at St Patrick's Athletic. He reshuffled his team, but Rubin were sharper and better, ahead within two minutes on the way to a 3-0 success.

"We didn't do ourselves justice," said O'Neill. A radio bulletin the following morning suggested it had been a miserable night. For those who recognised what it meant to stage such a historic game there, it was anything but.

September 29, 2011

Europa League Group A

Venue: London, England

Result: Tottenham Hotspur 3 Shamrock Rovers 1

COVENT Garden was a Shamrock Rovers colony on a glorious sunny day. English commentators wondered where 'Shamrock' was.

Over 3,000 travelling fans crammed into the away end and created a memorable noise which left an impression on more than just those present. Shane Long reported for training at West Brom the following morning to be quizzed by other players who asked if such crowds were normal in Ireland.

This was a one-off event, though, with all strands of the Irish football community weighing in behind the visitors. A variety of ex-League of Ireland players plying their trade in England, including former Hoop Noel Hunt and a contingent of Cork City old boys joined in with the noisy minority.

And Ireland awoke when Stephen Rice's deft flick gave the visitors a second-half lead. Over 900,000 people tuned into TV3 in the minutes that followed. A worried Harry Redknapp had Luka Modric ready in waiting before his second string of internationals came to life and collected a 3-1 win.

It didn't take away from an experience that veered into surreal territory. After a few smart saves, O'Neill was asked by an English journalist if he thought he'd be able to hold onto Richard Brush, with the inquisitor obviously not aware that the injury-prone Birmingham native had been picked up off the scrapheap as cover when Mannus departed.

The manager answered politely. Outside, he bumped into his old Newcastle colleague, Paul Gascoigne, who posed with Rice. 'Shamrock' had made some new friends.

October 20, 2011

Europa League Group A

Venue: Thessaloniki, Greece

Result: PAOK 2 Shamrock Rovers 1

THE point that got away, according to O'Donnell. "I thought it was the most competitive, the most comfortable we were in any of the group games," he says.

With a similar atmosphere to Belgrade, they relished the challenge.

It was interesting to be in a country with a more serious recession than Ireland.

Thessaloniki was gripped with public unrest over unpopular austerity measures. Rovers were lucky to get in 24 hours before a general strike that shut down pretty much all forms of transport. Some of their fans missed out as a consequence, others made it after initially abandoning hope.

Uncollected bags of rubbish were stacked on the streets as protest marches took place on the day of the game. Special buses were arranged to bring travelling fans to the game. Media were ferried by obliging hotel staff or taxi drivers who had removed their plates and were deeply in fear of being spotted.

The game was tense, too. PAOK scored early, but Rovers responded with a Karl Sheppard equaliser shortly after half-time, the young striker growing into the void left by the injured Twigg.

For 10 minutes, O'Donnell sniffed blood. Then, crack Portuguese winger Vierinha advanced to grab the points with a stunning strike.

Within a week, Hoop spirits were lifted as they secured back-to-back league titles in the smaller, albeit cleaner, surrounds of Belfield.

November 3, 2011

Europa League Group A

Venue: Tallaght Stadium

Result: Shamrock Rovers 1 PAOK 3

PROBABLY the least memorable game of the group stages, for it was over as a contest so early.

The hosts looked like a team in need of a break while PAOK, like Rovers, proved superior on their travels. They took seven points from a possible nine on the road on the way to topping the group.

PAOK's financial clout pales in comparison to Rubin Kazan and Tottenham, yet Greek international Dimitris Salpigidis, who tormented the home rearguard here, earns more in a year than the entire Rovers wage bill of €600,000.

"We were outclassed," conceded O'Neill.

November 30, 2011

Europa League Group A

Venue: Kazan, Russia

Result: Rubin Kazan 4 Shamrock Rovers 1

TATARSTAN'S capital was covered in snow, a postcard picture for the most daunting trip of a lot, a jaunt to west-central Russia.

Visiting fans amused themselves with snowball fights but, in the bigger picture, relations between O'Neill and the Rovers board were frosty. A disagreement over the food at the hotel was the latest source of discord, but the root cause was a complete breakdown of contract negotiations.

Kazan was a welcoming place, a challenge to the stereotype of Russia. The intimidation factor came from the conditions. Snow ploughs cleared the field the day before the match.

It was -5 degrees at kick-off time, and the visiting players decided to warm up in match mode -- no tracksuits or skins like the Rubin stars. When Murray emerged in short sleeves, locals thought he was mad.

The Hoops competed well and, with better decision-making, could have gone in 2-1 ahead rather than 2-1 down.

Rubin turned the screw thereafter. O'Neill loosened up after the game, with Kazan scribes asking if he liked the city and if his lads had stocked up on Russian vodka. "We've drunk it all already," he quipped.

December 15, 2011

Europa League Group A

Venue: Tallaght Stadium

Result: Shamrock Rovers 0 Tottenham Hotspur 4

THE end of the road, in more ways than one. On the eve of the game, O'Neill's exit was confirmed. Vainly, the club tried to prevent questions on the topic. The issue provided more column inches than the first competitive visit of an English side in the Premier League era.

Tottenham were on their way out of the competition too, but Harry Redknapp didn't seem too bothered. Chants from the East Stand about his impending court case temporarily stirred him into life; 8,000 people watched the Londoners stroll to a comfortable win, confirming that the League of Ireland champions would finish with no points and the worst goal difference.

Most of the Irish public responded rationally to that outcome, recognising the gigantic gulf in class and resources. After all, the Hoops were the lowest-ranked club in the competition and, by far, the cheapest assembled.

Regrettably, some who should have known better missed the point completely, with one columnist laughably suggesting that the group-stage results hinted at a return to the dark ages. They should open the curtains instead.

Fortunately, the Rovers hierarchy remained grounded post-Belgrade. They realised that a lot of the attention would be short term, and that the next step is to use the funds to lay foundations for the long term. To build from the bottom up.

For this generation of players, it was most likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Sure, they will reflect with some disappointments, the concession of goals from individual errors rather than opposition brilliance. Those moments will fade first from the memory, though.

Like the officials, fans, and everyone else who witnessed this tale unfold, they will reflect with a smile.

This was an illuminating adventure, above and beyond anything ever achieved by an Irish club side. Time will confirm the magnitude.

Irish Independent