Thursday 23 January 2020

Plenty of life left in proud Hoops -- Rice

Rovers lament opportunity missed, but O'Neill's battlers hold out hope of upsetting Spurs in Tallaght finale to Euro odyssey

WHEN the gloves were being handed out in the Shamrock Rovers dressing-room, two players decided against stepping forward.

Dan Murray and Stephen Rice are old school. They don't do protective clothing. In sub-zero temperatures, they would go to work as though it was a summer's day. Murray drew gasps from the natives as he led his side out in short sleeves.

"Gloves?" said Rice, afterwards, "Nah, that's not me. I wouldn't be wearing gloves."

He turns to the team bus that is ready for departure to the airport, and smiles.

"Some of the lads there, they're a bit, well... you know what I mean. I've never ever worn gloves before, so I wasn't going to start tonight."

The only admission of weakness was a rush to get some tea into him at half-time. The Dubliner chuckles as he recalls sitting there, shivering, with the cup shaking in his hands.

It was a moment of light relief after a night of frustration. Granted, the better team won. That's been the case in all of Shamrock Rovers' five Europa League group games. But Rice sensed a real opportunity in a first half when they had chances, only for two contentious decisions after the resumption putting Rubin out of sight.

His blood was still flowing as he talked about them.

Then again, the players were probably the lucky ones in this kind of climate. At least they were able to move around in an attempt to warm themselves up. Officials and fans were mostly stuck on the spot, as limbs turned into blocks of ice. Some resourceful locals came prepared. They know that when it's -5C at the Centralniy Stadium, the two things you must remember when leaving the house are your ticket and a mat for your feet.

The 100-odd Rovers fans who had made the trip -- the majority by charter, and a minority via train from Moscow -- heated themselves by indulging in some vigorous terrace karaoke. They chose an appropriate number to kick it off, the old David Essex hit with relevant lyrics. You know the tune. "Hold me close, don't let me go..."

Meanwhile, the natives in a half-empty stadium took heed and huddled together, save for the lunatics in the ultras section who took it to the extreme when their team opened up a 3-1 lead that secured three badly needed points. They removed their tops and danced bare-chested for the remainder.

Perhaps they were taking encouragement from their hardy manager, Kurban Berdyev. In his pre-match press conferences in both Tallaght and Kazan, he sat in warm rooms with a tracksuit top zipped up to the max, with a woolly hat and scarf to boot. But, for the heat of battle, he stood on the touchline in a suit with the jacket open, oblivious to the elements.


Clearly, he's from the same school of thinking as Murray and Rice, who dug in on a night where every puff of breath was visible. "A lot of us wouldn't have been used to it alright. But once you get playing, you try and forget about it. You just try and stay moving all the time," reflected midfielder Billy Dennehy, before wryly adding, "But that wasn't hard against a team like them."

Sure enough, it was another exacting examination. It's difficult for a manager like Michael O'Neill, who is used to tasting victory in the dugout. This journey has been unforgiving.

Back in the League of Ireland, a 4-1 defeat for Rovers would be followed by a lengthy and bitter post-mortem. But this is different.

Kazan had showed class and dignity in victory, and had impressed the visitors with their hospitality. Local media listened to O'Neill answer questions about football from the Irish media, and stepped up with their own queries.

Had he enjoyed Kazan? What were his impressions of the city? Would the Irish party be stocking up on Russian vodka before they went home? "No, we've drank it all already," he quipped. In a city with limited English, there would be no instant reaction. After his comment was translated, the room erupted in laughter.

"It was a short stay," he continued, "but Kazan is a beautiful city, and we were given a top-class welcome. We'll leave here with fond memories."

And that's the bigger picture. This is a unique journey, so everyone involved with the Hoops is determined to absorb every second.

Before the game, Russian TV filmed as a small group of fans trudged through the snow to a stall selling memorabilia to mark the occasion. One Rovers punter was given a police escort through the ground to pick up a souvenir programme.

Nearby, a group of local children, who had obviously encountered the travelling contingent earlier, jumped up and down singing, "Shamrock Rovers, champions" in broken English to the same tune that reverberates around Tallaght in the summer months, and was the soundtrack to that incredible night at White Hart Lane in September.

The August win in Belgrade has brought this club on the radar in places they could never have imagined. On Wednesday, a Russian journalist stood up and asked O'Neill if he would be starting Gary Twigg. There's plenty of media commentators in Ireland who probably don't know who Gary Twigg is.

One game remains, and Rice believes Rovers can give Spurs a hard time when they come to Tallaght. He was sick as he boarded the bus, firmly believing that the Hoops were close to registering a point in a venue that is over 2,000 miles from home.

"It's great to be able to play in these conditions," he stressed, "and we've gone from the heat of Belgrade to this; it's just great to experience it and challenge yourself against these players. You get punished for every little mistake, but you can see how much we've grown."

The record books will show they failed to register a point, but it would be wrong to say they came away from here with nothing.

Irish Independent

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