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'They told us to stay in the hotel. Police were literally parked outside'

The Saints were left stranded in Bulgaria last week amid a less-than-ideal build-up to tonight’s CSKA Sofia clash.

Alan Mathews speaking at Wednesday's press conference.
Alan Mathews speaking at Wednesday's press conference.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

NOT FOR the first time this season, a European tie involving an Irish side has had a somewhat chaotic build-up.

St Patrick’s Athletic’s preparation for tonight’s Europa Conference League second-leg clash at home to CSKA Sofia has been less than ideal.

With around 7,000 fans expected at Tallaght Stadium, it is surely the biggest game the Saints have been involved in for years.

Stephen Bradley spoke after Shamrock Rovers’ win on Tuesday night about the “unacceptable” situation that has disrupted the Hoops and other Irish sides in recent times, and in the pre-match press conference yesterday, St Pat’s technical director Alan Mathews expressed similar sentiments.

Mathews, along with the rest of the coaching staff and players, were left stranded in Bulgaria on Thursday after their planned chartered flight home was cancelled.

“We got back on Sunday morning at various times from 6.30am flights out of Stansted throughout the day and Heathrow at 6.05pm.

“So we staggered various flights out through London.

“We went commercial out to Stansted on Saturday night which was delayed three hours in the middle of the night.

“We then flew out at various stages on Sunday.”

Consequently, the Irish side’s post-match schedule was disrupted considerably after this unexpected turn of events.

“It has an impact. It definitely has an impact. You can’t do what you normally do post-game.

“While the facilities in the hotel were excellent, they really weren’t suitable for a squad of 30 people staying there for an extended period of time.

“So we did our recovery as best we could in the hotel with the facilities they had and got back on the training pitch [in Ireland] on Monday.

“The players were all grand on Monday, yesterday and today.”

But what could they do while staying in Bulgaria?

“We did pool work, gym work and recovery. We brought some equipment with us to aid recovery, for legs and flushing out toxins.

“The physio would have got some equipment which had to be shared throughout as it wasn’t sufficient to have one each.

“We made do with what we had.”

The situation was also not helped by the degree of local tension caused by CSKA’s shock loss.

“We didn’t go out of the hotel, the police told us to stay there,” he says.

“Some of our fans got a bit of a thumping after the match. There were two police cars outside the hotel all the time.

“We walked from the hotel to the square and back.

“They told us to stay in the hotel. Police were literally parked outside the hotel. When we went out, they asked: ‘Where are you going?’”

Pat’s difficulties abroad caused the cancellation of a previously arranged Premier Division game with Shelbourne, which had been scheduled to take place on Sunday.

The Tolka Park outfit were not happy, calling the decision for the match not to go ahead “incredibly unfair”.

Mathews issued a relatively diplomatic response to their rivals’ protests, saying: “We all have different views on things. My view is that we were in a situation in Bulgaria whereby we weren’t able to come home.

“The FAI are conducting a review of the whole thing and their findings will be made public in due course and we’ll see where it ends up.

“Ultimately, it’s out of our control, out of my control, out of the team’s control as to the events that occurred over the weekend.”

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He continued: “I’m not a tour operator, so I’m not going to comment on the ins and outs of [charter flights]. It’s a business that I know little or nothing about.

“The reality is we got to Sofia, played the game and we weren’t in a position to come home.

“We came home on Sunday. As I said, the outcome of the investigation by the FAI will be made public and you will see it.

“That’s where we were. You can’t hail a plane to take 30 people at the drop of a hat.”

As for the match itself, Pat’s will be going into it feeling quite optimistic. They secured a hard-fought but deserved 1-0 win in last week’s first leg, and with the exception of the suspended Mark Doyle, have a full squad to choose from.

“It’s a big step for us to go and beat them again,” Mathews added. “We’re more than capable of doing it. We put in a very good performance last week, players were very disciplined in and out of possession, and we worked hard to deny them opportunities. They’re serial group qualifiers across Europe in various competitions. You take confidence from that. But we’re only at half-time really and it will require another big performance to go through. 

“They’ll know more about us having played us. We’ll know more about them. We’ll try and be better, improve on certain things and come up a level or two. We expect our opponents to do the same. Yes, we expect a reaction from them as we’ll also be looking at ourselves to improve in certain areas too.”

It has been a good season in general for Irish teams in Europe. Sligo reached the third round for the first time in their history, while last night’s win in North Macedonia saw Shamrock Rovers guarantee a place in the group stages. Mathews says the Saints can take inspiration from this increased level of success.

“The players and everyone associated with the team can take heart and belief that a side like Rovers have done such a good job in getting to the group stages of one of the European competitions, and we were able to go and match them on our games to date, albeit there’s a substantial points difference between us in the league. We’ll try and emulate them and match that result [tonight].

“You can see that’s where the rewards are. If clubs can progress in Europe and you can get a squad of players to progress a couple of rounds or qualify [for a group phase], it makes such a difference financially to the revenue clubs here can generate, so it is the golden goose.

“Rovers have been scratching at the door to get into the group stages and now they are there. All credit to them. Domestically, it gives them the clout to have a budget to pick up the best players when they become available. If you can proceed in Europe, and Dundalk did it, it gives you belief, cash flow and profile, so many opportunities to expand the club in different ways.

“That kind of money is a multitude of the prize money here for winning league and cup, the type of revenue streams you don’t get organically. 

“Someone said to me: ‘Was the plan to get to the group stages?’ We have a long way to go to get to the group stages. The plan was to see if we could make progress in Europe. We have, but we want to make further progress and build it from there.”

Originally published at 06.00

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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