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No time for Kerry 'cute hoorism' as Gary O'Neill eyes Champions League progress with Rovers

Hoops midfielder accepts progress in Europe is a driving force as club bid to build on domestic dominance.

Shamrock Rovers midfielder Gary O'Neill.
Shamrock Rovers midfielder Gary O'Neill.
Image: Evan Treacy/INPHO

Updated Jul 5th 2022, 12:00 PM

GARY O’NEILL IS the only player from Kerry to ply his trade in the League of Ireland’s Premier Division.

On Tuesday night he will be anchoring the midfield for Shamrock Rovers as they bid to take control of their Champions League first round qualifier at home to Hibernians of Malta.

He may hail from the Kingdom but the 27-year-old has no time for ‘Yerra’, the cute hoorism his county men are renowned for in GAA.

O’Neill has no intention of pretending to play down the significance of Rovers’ European run.

It is a big deal and the players sense it, too.

“Yeah, definitely. Every morning I come in with Sean Hoare, we travel in together, he was lucky enough to be in the Europa League group stages [with Dundalk] and he was saying the same thing,” he explains.

“To be regarded as a top team, it’s not necessarily that you need to be in the group stages but just to put these arguments to bed, it’s an important one for us.

“Especially for our careers as well, I think. It’s something I’ve always wanted to experience, a group stage in Europe, and Alan Mannus has said the same thing, he wants to experience it before he calls it a day.

“Whether it’s Europa League or Conference League, just one of them, so in terms of individually and collectively, to be regarded as one of the best teams the country has seen, we have to make a run in Europe. We want to do that.”

gary-oneill O'Neill (left) with teammate Sean Hoare. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

Former Rovers winger Billy Dennehy is at the forefront of a consortium attempting to bring League of Ireland football to the county, after the FAI confirmed Kerry FC would be applying for a licence to compete in the 2023 First Division.

O’Neill hopes the venture can succeed but is up front about the issues the club will face given the strength of the GAA, a sport he wasn’t drawn to unlike so many of his peers.

“I never picked it up. My Dad was a coach and founded Kingdom Boys. I grew up with him coaching, around football, so never got into it. I played at the Kennedy Cup at 13 and was gone (to Wolves) by 15. It wasn’t my culture.

“I was probably the exception. Billy Dennehy too, he didn’t play much GAA growing up. My Dad was David Clifford’s manager for the Kennedy Cup. He was a centre-back and clubs were interested in him. It’s gone to well for him.

“Using him as an example as someone you’d want to attract to the national league, but he’s such a good player that it’s hard to compete with.

“As great as it is for the county, I just think they have to bring something to the League,” O’Neill continues.

“That’s hard for me to see right now because I know what goes on down there. Trying to get players is very difficult. I’m looking forward to following it and going to matches but think it’s very tough one to raise the First Division standard.

“It’s going to be an uphill to find the players and everything that comes with it.

“I’m sounding like I’m totally against it. I’m not. I want it to do well because I’d love to see it for the county.”

For now, though, O’Neill’s focus is on Europe.

david-clifford-celebrates-scoring-a-goal David Clifford was a promising underage soccer player. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

Rovers may be in a position of strength domestically, 10 points clear at the top of the table and on course for a hat-trick of titles, but he is well aware of the demands to deliver on nights like these.

Those chats with Hoare about Europa League group stage football, and seeing his former UCD teammate Robbie Benson go on to do same with the Lilywhites, act as motivation.

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The Rovers side of 2011 broke that barrier in the group stages in 2011, while Dundalk are the only club to get a point and win a game in 2016 under Stephen Kenny, before they surprisingly repeating the feat in 2020 when Italian Filippo Giovagnoli was head coach alongside manager Shane Keegan during the Covid-19 pandemic.

That latter campaign stung.

“It was tough, it was hard, I remember they did well to get there with the draw. It goes like that sometimes, when the draw came out that time, we got AC Milan and there was mixed reviews. Great for the neutral but, for us as players, it was a nightmare draw really.

“It’s great to be able to look back at the end of the career and say you played against AC Milan and Zlatan Ibrahimović and all, and everything that came with it, but at the time I was thinking (sighs) I don’t think we ever really had a chance of going through to be honest.

gary-oneill-with-zlatan-ibrahimovic O'Neill with Zlatan Ibrahimovic after defeat to AC Milan. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“At that stage, I just wanted to go through in Europe and play as many rounds as possible and maybe have a good chance of getting to the group stages but it was only one leg as well, a nightmare draw for us but like you say, we are the team that went unbeaten that year but at the same time we’re still sitting at home watching Dundalk in the group stages.

“It’s a tough one to take but I know the argument is there, to be regarded as a top team that the country has seen, we’re going to have to make a run of it.”

Champions League first round qualifier, first leg
Shamrock Rovers v Hibernians, Live Tuesday, RTÉ 2, Kick-off 7.30pm

- Originally published at 07.47

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