Thursday 21 November 2019

They don't remember you if you don't win, they will now - Burke

Eve-of-final meeting fires up Rovers players to end run of 32 years of hurt on Cup final stage as Kerry youngster O'Neill makes history

Gary O'Neill celebrates scoring Shamrock Rovers' winning penalty in yesterday's FAI Cup final against Dundalk at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Gary O'Neill celebrates scoring Shamrock Rovers' winning penalty in yesterday's FAI Cup final against Dundalk at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Aidan Fitzmaurice

It stood for longer than the Berlin Wall, but the cloud which hung over Shamrock Rovers for more than three decades has finally been lifted.

This very Dublin club won the FAI Cup with a large helping hand from the provinces. A penalty scored in normal time by a man from Derry, a save in the penalty shoot-out from a Belfast boy and then the winning kick in that shoot-out, stroked home by a son of Kerry.

Shamrock Rovers goalkeeper Alan Mannus celebrates saving a penalty from Dundalk's Daniel Cleary. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Shamrock Rovers goalkeeper Alan Mannus celebrates saving a penalty from Dundalk's Daniel Cleary. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The pain of 32 years of failure hurt, and hurt badly, at the core of the club. Players who were not even born when Pat Byrne became the last man in Hoops to lift the trophy aloft know what they have done.

More than a game, more than a medal and a trophy. This is a piece of history and they have earned the status of club legends.

For the first time since 1987, Shamrock Rovers are the FAI Cup holders. Hundreds of players have worn the green and white in that time but for those fans who have suffered through those decades, who went through the Charlton years and two recessions without seeing the FAI Cup come their way, have a new group of heroes.

"I know what sort of fans Rovers supporters are, they demand success all the time, I have been here when we weren't doing so well, seeing the bad points, the fans shouting and all of that," says Graham Burke, one of the local heroes for Rovers yesterday, a man from the north inner city who made the trip over the Liffey to D4 and had a Cup winner's medal to take back to the northside last night.

Rovers manager Stephen Bradley embraces Graham Burke. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Rovers manager Stephen Bradley embraces Graham Burke. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

"The gaffer always said that you'll never be remembered if you don't win anything, it's all very good playing nice football, people saying you were a great team but if you don't win something they won't remember you.

"They will remember us now. It's been 32 years since the club won the Cup, who knows how long it will be when they win it again but to be part of this is great.

"I said to Aaron Mac [McEneff] when he was taking the peno, that he could become a legend, if we'd won 1-0 they'd always remember who scored the goal that won a Cup final."

Of course there was more work to be done after McEneff scored, frustration to see his goal cancelled out within two minutes by Michael Duffy's stunning finish.

Joey O'Brien: 'It was a big blow for all us so I just said, 'Look, it's in the system, we have to play our way back into it''. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Joey O'Brien: 'It was a big blow for all us so I just said, 'Look, it's in the system, we have to play our way back into it''. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Yet the final was filled with frustration for Rovers for long spells, as had their most recent appearances in the final, defeats on penalties in the first final at Lansdowne Road after the venue reopened in 2010, losses to Derry City (2002) and Galway United (1991).

For much of the game yesterday, Rovers were in control, appearing to me more on their game, despite their lack of experience on the Cup final stage, than their opponents who have made Cup final day an annual outing for the previous four seasons.

And yet Rovers were unable to make their chances, or possession, count for much. When Ronan Finn was in sight of goal and in a position to score, but unable to do so, it seemed as if that would set the tone for the day.

There was a fear in some quarters that it was that experience in the Dundalk camp which would win it for them, as only a handful of the Rovers panel had played on the Aviva turf before. Alan Mannus was here, and was beaten here, when Rovers last played in a Cup final so he hardly held good memories of the Dublin 4 venue.

The bulk of the Rovers squad lacked that experience of the big stage, lads like Gary O'Neill, Roberto Lopes, Lee Grace, Seán Kavanagh and Aaron McEneff facing into the biggest game of their lives.

Yet it was Jack Byrne, who played in Lansdowne Road for Ireland just weeks earlier, who tried to take charge of the game, not everything going his way but Byrne keeping his composure and then showing his steel by taking the first of their penalties in the shoot-out.

The closing stages of normal time would be the most testing spell for them, that whirlwind moment when Rovers took the lead and saw it taken away in a matter of minutes when Duffy equalised.

Young heads can drop, young minds can wander at times like that so when the game did go to extra-time, it fell to Joey O'Brien to give his team-mates a message.

"I just said to the lads, 'Listen lads, we're sick,' that's how I said it to them," says O'Brien.

"There was no point hiding it from them, saying, 'Don't worry, blah, blah, blah'. It was a big blow for all us so I just said, 'Look, it's in the system, we have to play our way back into it.

"It was going to penalties, I suppose, if you were looking at it from the sidelines and we got that little bit of luck in the penos."

The penalty shoot-out was also a test of nerves.

The final task fell to Gary O'Neill, who is a rare breed: a Kerry native who has no interest in GAA, the Tralee lad claiming beforehand that he'd only ever played one game of Gaelic football and that was for his school, as a way of skipping classes.

Association football is his thing and after spells in England (Wolves) and Ireland (UCD) he was finally able to play, and deliver, on the big stage, O'Neill's name now on the roll of honour as it was his boot which sealed the Cup success.

"The first Kerryman to win the FAI Cup, that is obviously a special accolade for myself," he said.

"I knew coming to this club that silverware is expected. To be the group of players to bring silverware back is so special. Collectively as a group we sat down on Saturday night and talked about being the group to get Shamrock Rovers back to where they belong and put down a marker for next year. And I think we did that."

Irish Independent

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