Saturday 17 March 2018

The best yet to come for super Hoops

Financial rewards from latest success leaves the future looking rosy for O'Neill's heroes

Match-winner Dean Kelly celebrates the goal which clinched the league title for Shamroc
Match-winner Dean Kelly celebrates the goal which clinched the league title for Shamroc

In a way, it's fitting that the Hoops should seal their title success in Belfield, a place packed with young sports fans who mostly have an insouciant attitude to the League of Ireland.

As thousands of Rovers fans made their presence felt in the vast campus last night, heads were turned -- just like this Shamrock Rovers team have managed to capture the attention of the wider Irish public this year.

The achievements of the last 12 months deserve to be ranked up there with the greatest days in this club's storied history. For the fans who fought to save the club from extinction six years ago, arguments over how this team compares with the legends of the past are a welcome endeavour.

The decisive factor may well be how the powers-that-be invest the riches from the unprecedented European breakthrough. In other words, it is about leaving a legacy that is more than postcard moments. And, in the throes of celebration, manager Michael O'Neill gave the strongest indication in recent months that he plans to be a part of it.

"That's my intention," he said. "You can never look too far ahead in football, but people are assuming that I'm leaving just because I haven't signed a contract. But I said to the board that once the league was dealt with, we'd sit down and discuss the situation.

"I'm more than happy with the package that has been discussed. We've got a good model here, and we're financially sound. The European money will help that."

Running costs and bonuses tend to eat into any profits, but the expectation is that the Hoops will clear a seven-figure sum as a result of that remarkable night in Belgrade. Nobody involved with the club is deluded enough to think it will make them an overnight sensation.

Pragmatically, they accept that the attention will shift away once their final Europa League game with Spurs ends in December. They realise that progress will have to be gradual and that, from next March, their week-to-week activities will slip under the radar again.

But the fact that close to a million Irish people flicked over at some point in their clash with Spurs demonstrates that a large swathe of population are aware of what they are doing.

Other clubs fear complete domination. The logic is understandable, but the lesson of this year tells a slightly different story. While the league remains an operation for 40-week contracts, cramming close to 60 games into that period will take a toll on any team, particularly when you factor in the travel element that accompanies frequent European forays.

There will be personnel changes over the winter, although if O'Neill stays there will be a degree of continuity. He reckons they need to add only three or four new faces.

Still, defender Enda Stevens will join Aston Villa in January (for a tidy initial fee of £250,000), while the likes of Karl Sheppard and Conor McCormack are sure to attract amorous glances from across the Irish Sea. The increased profile means that vultures will always be hovering around.

The significant advantage they have is that pretty much every other player in the country would find it hard to say no if the offer of a switch to Tallaght was presented. In this era of short contracts, it's like a great big version of a US college draft, except that one club basically has the pick of the crop.

Rival managers will be busy surveying the available talent for next, year but the better performers will hold off to see what happens in Dublin 24 before shaking hands with anyone.

"I'm already looking at players that I can sign for next season," said O'Neill.

The sceptics, who have watched other clubs in the last decade waste money on recruiting the tried and trusted, will anticipate similar behaviour. Rovers insist they will avoid the same mistakes.

"We just have to add to the squad, but it will be done within the parameters that we've been in so far," said O'Neill. "I don't envisage any mad spending spree."

Ironically enough, the recession has made it easier to build a quality squad on a modest budget, with players no longer holding the balance of power.

Refreshingly, though, in the wake of events in Serbia, directors were immediately thinking about what the funds could do for the development of their training facility in Kiltipper.

Already, the land they own is the base for the schoolboy team and with investment they can install pitches and ancillary facilities to bring it up to speed for first-team use -- thus saving the money on rent at the AUL.

It's that kind of talk which other clubs should really be worried about.

Ultimately, while the respect of the floating public is welcome, developing the base in Tallaght is the principal aim. Season ticket sales crept up to 2,500 for this year, and if they can add another 500 to that number for 2012 and build steadily, then the platform will grow.

The champions are also likely to be seeded in the second round of the Champions League qualifiers next July, which means they will be one game away from another €500,000 -- and two more ties where one victory will ensure a repeat of this year's group stage heroics. The players that remain should have the confidence of being around on a dozen big European nights to draw upon.

Talk of the long, long-term future will mean little to the older ones. For them, the short-term significance is huge. Emulating the achievements of Jim McLaughlin's aces is a realistic goal.

In the dark days, songs about the all-conquering team of the 1980s were a reminder of what the club used to be.

This morning, Rovers fans, both old and new, can dare to dream that the best is yet to come.

Irish Independent

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