Saturday 21 April 2018

Rovers must get it right this time

Shamrock Rovers' second life in Tallaght is both a privilege and a burden for the club, writes John O'Brien

TWO goals behind, the tie effectively settled, the giddy supporters at Tallaght Stadium on Thursday evening still hadn't lost their voices.

There were eight minutes left when Alessandro Del Piero made his belated entrance and, even if the Italian is a shadow of his former self, his presence added significantly to the gaiety and gravitas of a memorable occasion. A true legend of the game to playfully chide. How often did such an opportunity arise?

More than anything, it captured the mood of the evening: blithe, joyous, optimistic, even a small bit plaintive. All week the papers had churned out stories about Shamrock Rovers' golden past and the great European nights they once routinely promised and the gleeful barracking of Del Piero was a salutary reminder of how starved the current generation of Irish football supporters has been and how vivid the appetite for success remains.

You shouldn't have to be a Rovers' ultra or a League of Ireland die-hard to appreciate the importance of Thursday night and the precious boost it will give the game here. Rovers mightn't have taken anything tangible from the game but they were far from disgraced against a technically superior outfit and, in parts, they managed to produce some pleasing passages of play themselves. The concession of a frightfully early goal didn't stun them or thieve them of their nerve.

For a club that was all but extinct a few years ago, it was enough to frame a thoroughly enjoyable evening. And that's the thing. Shamrock Rovers have been given a second life and that is both the club's privilege and its burden. There is an onus on the present stewards to get things right this time around and, on the evidence so far, you'd have to say they have been making a decent fist of it.

There is a humility to the game here now that is encouraging. On Thursday, the mind drifted back to the last time the domestic game so thoroughly stole the public imagination -- the visit of Deportivo La Coruna to Landsdowne Road for a Champions League game against Shelbourne in 2004 -- and of how the dividend reaped on that electric night was squandered by Shelbourne's elaborate ambitions and the crazy finances needed to fund them.

Back then, Rovers were approaching 20 years as the nomads of Irish football and the price the club was paying for the fateful decision to sell Glenmalure Park in 1987 seemed certain to end ultimately in death. Yet, as ailing as they were, they still spent madly just to stay in touch with their over-spending competition. When the comedian Brendan O'Carroll popped up with a purported €60m rescue deal, it had all become surreal and a touch sad.

Still, for all the mistakes committed by previous owners, the idea of relocating to Tallaght stands as a monument to good sense and vision. The reality that there could be five professional clubs in Dublin, as there were then, and none based south of the Liffey was odd and faintly ridiculous. And Tallaght, with its working-class estates and proud history of producing Irish internationals, made you stop and think why it hadn't been thought of sooner.

In the end, it took a stroke of political patronage to get them there, but you can't blame Rovers for that. They may have enjoyed the fruits of the struggle, but the bitter fight with the Dublin County Board wasn't of their making. It was either brave or foolish of John O'Donoghue, then Minister of Sport, to overturn a South Dublin County Council decision to grant the GAA a place in the stadium, but if the minister cut the long-suffering Rovers a break, then who were we to begrudge them?

Technically, the GAA had a point. A community stadium, after all, should have a duty to embrace all codes. Yet to many it fought its case with a vehemence and hostility that stretched far beyond any argument that had to do with facilities or fairness. A stadium for all -- but mostly soccer -- being completed in an area of such strategic importance for each of the main sports was simply more than it could stomach.

The issue isn't how they got there now. It is what they are doing now they are there. And there is no reason to assume that Rovers, a community-owned club now, couldn't contribute as much to Tallaght as Thomas Davis or St Mark's have undeniably done. The club has 16 schoolboy teams, employs over 30 coaches and maintains a network of volunteers that isn't significantly different to any GAA club around the country.

Growing roots in the local community will take time, of course. Around the same time that Rovers established its schoolboys' set-up, Irish rugby was devising its Tallaght strategy. Tallaght now has two adult rugby teams, underage teams all the way down to under 12s and has plans to build a permanent home in Kiltipper. Because rugby sprang from such a low base, it is easy to measure progress. In time, though, a well-run Shamrock Rovers will make a difference.

When he was a talented kid growing up on the Springfield Estate and attending school in St Aidan's, Robbie Keane had to move to Crumlin to get the attention of scouts from the big English clubs. Richard Dunne felt compelled to move across the river to Home Farm. That there wasn't a sufficiently vibrant schoolboy club in the country's most populated suburb was a serious indictment of how the game was run here.

So it was encouraging on Thursday to see Stephen Bradley replace Robert Bayly in stoppage time, thus ensuring at least one Tallaght native saw some action. A decade ago, Bradley was one of the most hyped football kids to ever leave these shores. He was the "next Liam Brady", a kid with gold in his boots, coveted by Alex Ferguson and a host of top managers. In the end, he opted for Arsenal but never made it in England for reasons that partly, at least, struck at the ingrained failure of the system here.

In a proper football environment, a talented kid like Bradley wouldn't have left home at 15, whatever the riches on offer. There would have been the comforts of home and a vibrant youth-set up and, better, a year or two playing in a first-team encouraged to play the type of football that would benefit a young player with the potential to make it in the Premier League or beyond. That structure wasn't there for Bradley nor a thousand kids like him.

The brutal truth is that the League, in its various guises, has never promoted neat, attacking football and, not coincidentally, its record of producing quality young players is dismal. And for all his good work as manager, it has been a persistent criticism of Michael O'Neill that he doesn't allow his teams to be as expressive as he might. It was noticeable on Thursday that they troubled Juventus most when they brought the ball down and tried to play.

And that's the hope now. A progressive, community-based club teaching kids the best values of the game and how to play it. Get it right and the big European nights they crave might soon be a routine occurrence again.

Sunday Independent

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