Sunday 20 May 2018

Rovers may face battle to retain their brightest stars


SHAMROCK ROVERS face a fight to keep their best players following their stunning elevation into the ranks of the elite of the Europa League.

The Hoops' exploits in Belgrade last Thursday night have created a stir cross-channel. By gate-crashing the group stages of the competition, the danger for manager Michael O'Neill is that young protégés like Conor McCormick, Enda Stevens and Ronan Finn will be in the shop window and could be transfer targets in January.

O'Neill was yesterday reluctant to be drawn on what he regarded as a hypothetical situation. "I can't think like that," he said. "Football is about the here and now, and the players want to play through the Europa League campaign and anything that can happen will happen at the end of the season.

"I'd be reluctant to lose them, but if and when it happens that's when we will look at it. It's outside my control and not something I'll dwell on."

He also declined to discuss his own situation. As the manager who guided Rovers to new heights, his name is likely to be linked with vacant posts in Britain over the course of the season.

"I'd rather not discuss that right now," he said. "My job is to manage Shamrock Rovers and we have achieved something no other club has achieved, and that's where my focus is at the moment."

One league casting envious eyes on Shamrock Rovers' achievement is the Scottish Premier League, which saw its three remaining representatives crash out of the Europa League last Thursday.

Their failure, contrasted with the Hoops' success, will re-ignite the summer soccer debate in Scotland, but O'Neill pointed out: "The only advantage is in the first game; after that most teams' seasons have started and their players should be fresh and raring to go. We didn't have any advantage against the team from Estonia as they were in the middle of their season as well, or in Copenhagen or Belgrade, as they had started their seasons.

"The flip-side to this is that we will be playing group games at the end of our season against teams that are only 10 to 20 games into their season. At the end we'll have played 12 European games, which is roughly a third of our league season, and close to 60 competitive games."

From the SPL's point of view, their teams' failure on Thursday was like losing a six-pointer to the League of Ireland in the UEFA club coefficient rankings. These are constructed over a five-year period, and the present trend favours the League of Ireland and if that continues, the SPL may fall behind its largely part-time rival.

See Pages 6 & 16

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