Sunday 22 April 2018

Rovers hoping for rich harvest as they break new ground

The Tallaght side are aware of the financial rewards and the huge challenge awaiting them in the Europa League, says Seán Ryan

FIFTY-FOUR years ago, the Cunningham family decided to enter Shamrock Rovers into the European Cup. It was a big step for a League of Ireland club, but they achieved instant financial gratification when they drew Manchester United's Busby Babes -- and Irish soccer's fascination with European football has continued from that point.

On Thursday, Shamrock Rovers will again break new ground for Irish football when they make their debut in the Europa League group stages against Russia's Rubin Kazan at Tallaght Stadium. In 1957, Manchester United came to Dublin and beat Rovers 6-0; this time no one is predicting a 6-0 reverse.

However, they are confidently forecasting a financial bonanza for the Hoops, whose fans flocked to the Tallaght Stadium yesterday to snap up their tickets for the group games. A three-game sell-out would net Rovers a cool half-million euro in receipts and, despite a heavy outlay on extra seating and the travel involved to Kazan, Salonika and London, chairman Jonathan Roche is hopeful of clearing €1m from these games.

Unlike rivals St Pat's, who ran into trouble before their last vital home Europa League game, the Rovers' player bonuses and extra wages (for eight to 10 weeks) have all been agreed, and Roche even has plans for the profit from this venture: "The money will be put into upgrading our training facilities," adding ominously: "And also to help us to challenge at this level again, but we won't be going mad."

With a small squad, compared to their European rivals, Rovers had to bulk it up with two late signings, defender Jim Paterson and midfielder Rohan Ricketts, both players with a wealth of experience in England and Scotland. "We didn't break our pay scale to sign these players," said Roche, "and we still have a smaller squad than is permitted by UEFA because five are supposed to be club-trained from the age of 15, and we don't have any players in that category."

What Rovers do have is a management team of Michael O'Neill and Jim Magilton, who seem to have discovered the formula for success at European club level. Last year, Rovers had great results against Bnei Yehuda of Israel and Juventus; this year it's been the turn of Partizan Belgrade to suffer at their hands.

Interestingly, Magilton, a former manager at QPR and Ipswich Town, is not on the club's books. "Jim is doing it as a favour for his friend, Michael," said Roche. "All he gets are his expenses as he has to come down from Belfast."

At the start of this campaign, Shamrock Rovers' ranking by UEFA was 324th, while the other teams in their group were ranked as follows: Tottenham 28th, Rubin Kazan 56th, PAOK Salonika 92nd. All three opponents are ranked higher than Partizan Belgrade, who were 108th, indicating the depth of the task facing Rovers if they are to get any points from this tough group.

However, with each point secured worth more (€70,000) than a club receives for winning the FAI Cup (€50,000), O'Neill believes Rovers can take points off Rubin Kazan and PAOK.

He had targeted these games when the draw was made and, even after losing a classic to Sligo Rovers last Friday night, he said: "I still feel that way, but my focus is not on that just now, it's on our game against St Pat's on Monday. The biggest problem in relation to the European games is that we can't start to prepare until Tuesday. That leaves just two days and one of them is for recovery. My concern is over this [lack of] preparation time more so than the mental and physical side."

Ideally, a club needs at least four days to prepare adequately for a European game, but Rovers' intense schedule of league and FAI Cup games leaves them facing the possibility of playing three games a week until the end of the domestic season on November 6.

One area where Rovers do score is in UEFA's decision to wipe clear all yellow cards incurred up to this. Full-backs Pat Sullivan and Enda Stevens were both on two cards and would have been suspended but for this rare benevolence on the part of UEFA's disciplinary committee.

With three players -- Ken Oman, Conor McCormack and Dean Kelly -- injured, and Paterson and Ricketts not up to full fitness yet, to get anything from Thursday's game is a tall order.

Rubin Kazan (beaten 3-1 by Krasnodar yesterday) are a cosmopolitan outfit, a true League of Nations squad, with 15 countries represented. All, no doubt, enticed to a city as large as Dublin, but which endures temperatures of minus 20, by the cash from an oil- and gas-rich region. It gets so cold there that Rovers' game in Kazan on November 30 will be played in a covered, heated arena.

By the time that game comes around, Rovers' domestic season will have ended, but this week it's not like that, with the St Pat's game tomorrow interfering with vital preparation time. In the circumstances, while it won't be 6-0 to Rubin, don't be surprised if they go home with the three points and a healthy start to their goal difference. Anything less would be another Michael O'Neill miracle.

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