O'Neill eager to cash in on Rovers' Euro adventure
THEY may be visiting this year's European Capital of Culture, but Shamrock Rovers are not here to produce a work of art. This trip is about securing a valuable place in the third qualifying round of the Champions League by whatever means necessary.
Manager Michael O'Neill admitted last night that the financial rewards serve as a considerable incentive. Progression to the next stage would be worth twice as much to the Hoops as regaining their league title this year.
The Dubliners arrived in the Estonian capital on Sunday night with a 1-0 lead over Flora Tallinn from the first leg, conscious that getting across the finishing line in this evening's second leg (kick-off 4.45 Irish time) would bring another €220,000 into the coffers.
In total, it would bring their European earnings from UEFA across the €500,000 barrier. The remainder is made up of money that Michel Platini and Co award to all domestic champions who enter at the same stage as the League of Ireland title winners.
The reduction of Airtricity League prize money means that the 2011 champions will collect just €100,000, albeit with some UEFA money to come a few months down the line.
It puts the importance of the task at the hand in context. Getting through a round in the Champions League is huge for a club the size of Rovers.
The daunting task of an encounter with FC Copenhagen faces the winners, but that game comes with the cushion that the losers are then parachuted into the final round of the Europa League qualifiers. Lucrative commercial spin-offs could bring another few quid into the kitty.
Elimination tonight, however, would mean that the European adventure is over. It's a pretty simple equation.
"The financial element is huge," admitted O'Neill, speaking before training in the evening sun at the A La Coq Arena, the venue which doubles as the home of the Estonian national team. "That side of it is hugely important for the club.
"The upside is that it's not money we have budgeted for this year, and it would be positive to have the income stream. If you can get through this -- whilst the next tie would be difficult -- you have a shot at really serious money.
"It would mean a minimum of six European games, and that could only help the squad individually and together. It would hopefully allow us to do some things that we hadn't budgeted for."
O'Neill acknowledged that Irish clubs have sometimes struggled when they are in pole position and expected to advance; it can extend to the international arena as well, the sense of being more comfortable as the underdog. Bohemians choked at this stage 12 months ago.
"It probably does bring different pressure," he said. "Players often like to be in the position where they have everything to gain rather than something to lose. But we went into last week's game not being as equipped as we would have liked. The players were unsure what they were facing. We know more now."
Chris Turner, last week's match winner, is certainly thinking in those terms. In particular, the Hoops were encouraged by how uncomfortable Flora were when it came to dealing with relatively routine deliveries into the area.
The feeling is that Rovers will have opportunities to grab the all-important away goal that would leave Flora needing three.
"I'd be confident of scoring there because of the chances we had in Tallaght," said Turner. "But we know it'll be hard because of the warm weather (it will be more than 20 degrees at kick-off time) and the big pitch they have.
"I don't think they're maybe used to dealing with so many corners and free-kicks and balls into the box. If we can exploit that, hopefully we can get a goal off them."
For Turner, the joy of breaking the deadlock in the first leg was a welcome contrast from a troubled build-up arising from his well-documented confrontation with Derry City's Eamon Zayed last month.
An investigation concluded with the midfielder receiving a three-match ban for making an offensive comment. He still doesn't want to speak about the furore.
"I just want to draw a line under what happened and that's it -- move on," he said. "I was just delighted that I was able to get a goal for the team last week and that's why I was so happy."
The mood at the final whistle was less jubilant, though, with a sense that the majority of the Tallaght crowd felt that an opportunity had been missed to take a bigger cushion to the Baltics.
"I wouldn't say we were disappointed not to score more on Tuesday, that's the wrong word," said Turner. "We could have scored more, but we didn't, so it's up to us to get an away goal now."
Goalkeeper Alan Mannus is likely to be a key figure in his last game for Rovers before joining St Johnstone on a free transfer.
O'Neill finally spoke about the matter yesterday, explaining that Mannus only re-signed this year on the condition that he could leave for nothing if a club across the water came in; from the club's point of view, they wanted to make sure that he remained until after this round of European fare.
"He has always wanted the opportunity to go and play in the UK and it never came," said O'Neill. "The SPL has a higher profile than our own league, and he wants to develop his own profile. While we operate on a 42-week contract, there is always the risk that players will leave in this circumstance. From a selfish point of view, I was hoping that the offer would not present itself, but he goes with our blessing."
Breaking back into the Northern Irish set-up is another of Mannus' ambitions and with the 'keeper joined here by Turner, O'Neill, and temporary assistant Jim Magilton, the province has a strong representation.
They were buoyed by Darren Clarke's British Open success. O'Neill's father is a member of Royal Portrush, and the Hoops boss has fond memories of Clarke buying rounds after a chance encounter in London shortly after the golfer had collected his maiden European Tour title.
The hope for the large Shamrock Rovers contingent here is that they can secure their first success in Europe's premier competition, and use it as a launch pad to bigger and better things.
SHAMROCK RVs (v Flora Tallinn) -- Mannus, Sullivan, Sives, Oman, Stevens; Finn, Rice, Turner; Kelly, Dennehy; Twigg.
Flora Tallinn v Shamrock Rovers,
Live, Setanta Ireland, 4.45