Monday 18 December 2017

Kenny: Europe can spark Rovers revival


STEPHEN KENNY, regarded by many as the best manager in the League of Ireland, finds himself under pressure to deliver at champions Shamrock Rovers after heavy defeats by rivals St Patrick's Athletic, Sligo Rovers and Bohemians. He is hoping that Tuesday's Champions League game against FK Ekranas from Lithuania (Tallaght Stadium, 8.0) will help kick-start a strong second half of the season for his team.

"I'm not an idiot," says Kenny of the pressure he is under at the moment. "I do understand that we have to be winning and that expectations are high. I think we need to go on a run of winning matches and that the Champions League game on Tuesday will be part of that."

In his analysis of the season so far, he said: "We have had a lot of good performances recently, but the Bohs game stands out as a bad day at the office. We were the better team against Pat's last Sunday, we beat Shels and drew with Cork in a game we dominated."

Referring to the late equalisers scored by full-backs Pat Flynn (Pat's) and John Dunleavy (Cork), he joked: "I'm hoping Ekranas have no former Wolves players who are overlapping full-backs. Flynn and Dunleavy both scored injury-time equalisers and they were the only goals of their careers."

Apart from the return of full-back Pat Sullivan, Kenny has made no move to add to his squad, believing they are strong enough to retain the title. "We should have more points, there's no doubt about that, and we have made mistakes, but we can have a strong second half of the season."

One player the Hoops are badly missing is striker Karl Sheppard, who was transferred to Reading. Without him, all the goalscoring duties have fallen back on Gary Twigg, who has done well, but can't afford an off-day.

Kenny believes that the return from injury of Ciarán Kilduff will take the pressure off Twigg. "He will be like a new signing. After returning to training last week, he will be involved in the squad in the next two weeks and might be available for the away tie against Ekranas."

Unlike some managers, Kenny doesn't regard European competition as a distraction to the main business of winning domestic honours.

"No, it's a great honour to be involved in the Champions League or the Europa League as I have been on 20 occasions. You are representing your country. It's of huge importance to football in Ireland and something you want to do justice to.

"Ekranas will be confident coming here -- they are the seeded team -- but we'll believe in ourselves too and it's our ambition to get through this round because that guarantees you six games, which is a big incentive."

He is under no illusions about the danger Ekranas pose to his plans. "From our point of view, it is a difficult test. They have won four in a row in their league and the double for the last two years, losing only three games in those four seasons. In their last eight games in Europe, they have won four and lost three.

"They beat Valletta last year, as you would expect, and then BATE Borisov knocked them out. They have a lot of Lithuanian internationals and a Georgian international. They are a very experienced team."

One Ekranas player who is familiar to Kenny from his time at Dunfermline is striker Anders Velica. "He was at Hearts and scored a lot of goals in the SPL and Rangers bought him for £1m. He got a hat-trick in Ekranas' last game, but I think he could be on the move this weekend. There's talk of a transfer to another Lithuanian club."

Meanwhile, Stephen O'Flynn was the unlikely hero of St Patrick's Athletic's fine extra-time success against IBV in the Europa League first qualifying round second leg tie in Iceland. O'Flynn, who hadn't played for the first team since March, came on as sub and combined with another sub, Jake Kelly, to score the goal which earned Pat's a place in the second qualifying round on the away goals rule.

The star of the show, though, was goalkeeper Brendan Clarke, just as he was last year for Sligo Rovers against Ukraine side Poltava. He made a string of fine saves to keep IBV at bay.

St Pat's face another week of travel as they take on Bosnia & Herzegovina side Siroki Brijeg on Thursday in the second qualifying round, with the second leg at Richmond Park on July 26.

Before that, they host surprise league contenders Drogheda United this afternoon (3.0) as they bid to keep their title hopes alive. In the other game today, Bohemians will get a chance to lick their wounds after their 5-1 thrashing by Thor when they host UCD at Dalymount Park (3.0).

Sligo Rovers, who will be glad to have leading scorer Danny North back in action, travel to Slovakia to play Spartak Trnava in a Europa League second qualifying round tie on Thursday. In North's absence, they made heavy work of overcoming an understrength Derry City.

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