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Magical journey ends for O'Neill

MICHAEL O'NEILL is not an emotional man, but at the final whistle in Tallaght last night he knew that it was time to move into position for a final goodbye to the Shamrock Rovers faithful.

The man with the microphone called the fans to attention and the Northern Irishman strode across the pitch to take the acclaim from the East Stand.

His 155th game in charge had ended in defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, yet it mattered little. When he was appointed boss, Tallaght Stadium was still in the construction phase. Last night, 8,500 fans crammed into the venue to watch Premier League opposition in a competitive fixture. That's the result that really counts.

"I'm not the kind that's going to break down," grinned O'Neill, when asked about the reaction. "But it was a cold night and it would have been easy for the fans to leave.

"This club is about the supporters and the members. Nights like this are to be enjoyed, but it's so hard to reward them with the results."

The Rovers press officer stepped in when the reasons for his departure were touched upon. O'Neill flirted with diplomacy.

"At the end of the day I'm leaving," he continued. "The board have a decision to make about the direction the club will go. I'd rather look at the league titles, the 16 European games we've had. We've had Juventus, Madrid, Tottenham, Belgrade and Copenhagen to name just a few."

The 42-year-old proceeded to thank his staff, and a variety of people involved with the club -- except the board. Evidently, some elements of the break-up are still raw.

From here, he hopes it's a case of onwards and upwards. He doesn't believe that the League of Ireland is moving in the right direction, but feels it will prove a useful stepping stone.

"Managers will come and go," he stressed. "History has shown it's a good league for managers to come in and progress their careers. We'll see what the future brings."

He confirmed that Northern Ireland will interview him next week, and joked that there was no tension with his assistant Jim Magilton, who is also in the running. Furthermore, he suggested they would be willing to work together in the future.

"We'll see if that arises," he said, although he ruled out the prospect of going to the IFA as a joint-partnership, or one of the duo automatically becoming assistant if the other got the job.

His opposite number, Harry Rednapp, wished both O'Neill and Magilton the best of luck for the future.

The Tottenham boss was less popular with the Rovers hardcore in the East Stand, and appeared to gesture at one point after a sustained chorus of chants related to upcoming legal proceedings.

"I've spent enough time in Ireland to know what fantastic people they are," he said, later.

"When people get together and shout a load of nonsense, that's football, that's life. I don't hold any grudges."

Redknapp gave the impression that he was slightly suspicious about the

1-1 draw between PAOK and Rubin Kazan that confirmed his team's exit elimination whatever happened here.

Needing a Rubin loss and a five-goal turnaround, Redknapp did send out a team with an attacking shape. Yet for the opening 20 minutes, they didn't show a huge desire to press forward with purpose.

Rovers deserve credit for that, with lone front man Karl Sheppard holding the ball up well in the early exchanges. And half chances were forged from set-pieces, with Ken Oman and Dan Murray getting sight on goal.

However, as the half-hour mark approached, and word filtered through that Rubin were a goal down and a man down in Greece, the Premier League outfit stepped it up a gear to demonstrate their quality.

The likes of Modric, Bale, and Adebayor were at home, but there were still seven internationals in the visiting starting XI, four of whom lined out at last summer's World Cup in Steven Pienaar's South Africa.

It was the ex-Everton man who opened the scoring, finding space in the area to unleash a shot that took a cruel deflection off Jim Paterson to confuse Richard Brush.

That goal sucked the life out of the hosts and it reminded Spurs there were opportunities to exploit.

Before the interval, they added two more to move within touching distance of the knockout stages. Rovers, on the other hand, were on course for a 100pc losing record at this vaunted level.

Talented youngster Andros Townsend was the star turn. His sub appearance in September's clash turned the tide and he gave Pat Sullivan a torrid time. He doubled the lead with an exquisite curler before teeing up Jermaine Defoe who stabbed past Brush from close range.

It was looking grim.

O'Neill made a change, summoning Stephen O'Donnell for Stephen Rice.

And the second half was much better. O'Donnell threatened from distance before controversy struck when Sheppard was released by a Murray punt.

As he advanced on Carlo Cudicini, he was brought to the ground by the covering Jake Livermore.

Replays suggested that a free and a red card should have been the punishment, but the Swiss referee waved play on.

Gary Twigg was introduced to support Sheppard as Spurs raised the intensity again, although news of a Kazan equaliser had reduced their excitement levels.

Indeed, the Londoners became quite loose as the game developed, and Sheppard was caught out by the offside flag when Paterson needlessly touched the ball.

Chances were swapped at either end as full time loomed, with thrills and spills in either goalmouth until the purple shirts grabbed a fourth at death with more frustration when a clear handball from Pienaar set the wheels in motion. Sub Harry Kane converted.

Many of the day-trippers in attendance had escaped the cold at that point, but the vast majority of the capacity crowd remained as the losing party stayed out longest to soak in the applause and, in some cases, say their farewells.

It's been one hell of an adventure.

Irish Independent