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'Otto won Euro 2004 with Greece - big deal, I'd have taken them to a World Cup'

A new century led to a new dawn in League of Ireland football as teams began to punch above their weight in Europe.

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This article is a part of 2000: Revisited, a week-long series of features looking back on some of the headlines and the forgotten stories that filled the sports pages 20 years ago.

First up: Garry Doyle recalls how, inspired by their larger-than-life manager Roddy Collins, Bohemians went toe-to-toe with a German giant in the 2000 Uefa Cup… 

RODDY COLLINS SAT in the foyer of an Aberdeen hotel and stared at his mirror image in the newspaper. “Shut your gob, Rod,” the headline screamed.

There was little chance of that.

All week, he’d been thinking back to 1995; Millstreet and Cork; his brother Steve and Chris Eubank. A dream was delivered that night, brain and brawn combining to bring the WBO super-middleweight title back to Cabra. “You out-psyched him Stevo,” Roddy told his younger brother the morning after the fight. “You got inside his head.”

Five years later he was trying to do the same thing to a different kind of opponent. Compared to Collins, Ebbe Skovdahl’s managerial CV had a lot more detail. The Aberdeen manager had been involved in 57 previous European ties as a manager; 57 more than Roddy. An issue? Collins didn’t think so. “Ebbe’s too old for this job,” Collins said in the pre-match press-conference. “His tactics are outdated. Put me in charge here and I’ll do a better job.”

To outsiders, it seemed a risky strategy, this use of boxing rhetoric in a football context. Yet throughout his career, whether on the pitch or in the dug-out, Collins had always been intuitive and unpredictable. Once, as a young man, he instinctively decided to catch a boat and train for a trial at Mansfield Town. Arriving there with nothing but a pair of boots and a dream, he left with a two-year deal.

Now he was the one doing the deals. He’d inherited a poor team at Bohemians but had quickly built a decent one. Yet even though the 1999/2000 season ended with a third-place finish in the league and an appearance in the FAI Cup final, Collins still wasn’t happy, deciding there and then to embark on a second phase of reconstruction.

“If something isn’t right, I don’t see the point in hanging around,” he said. He didn’t. Trevor Molloy, a hero of the Irish side who finished third at the 1997 Under 20 World Cup, was prized away from St Pat’s. Another kid from Dublin’s north inner city, Darren O’Keeffe, was bought from Drogheda United. Former Manchester United midfielder, Liam O’Brien, was also persuaded to join, as was Dave Hill, another veteran. Six players made their competitive debuts at Pittodrie in the first-leg of their Uefa Cup tie. “Because the team was so new, because we were away from home, I had to simplify the plan,” Collins says.

trevor-molloy-1082000-digital Trevor Molloy scores the winner against Aberdeen. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

He was true to his word. The night before the game, he wrote out a paragraph of instructions on brown envelopes and individually handed them to his players. “These are the requirements you have to carry out,” he told them. “Just do these few things and after that play on instinct.”

Message delivered, he then tried to get inside the Aberdeen players’ heads. Whereas these days managers practically commit marriage proposals to opposition bosses’ in the pre-match build-up, Collins glanced through the list of the Aberdeen squad and sensed weaknesses. Theirs was an ageing squad, players living off past reputations, their place in Europe resulting from a run to the Scottish Cup final, where they had been beaten 4-0 by Rangers. Their league form, meanwhile, had been dreadful, relegation avoided solely by the fact the Scottish Premier League was expanding from 10 teams to 12. Collins sensed a chance.

“It’s the lack of self-belief (in Irish football) that does my head in. You could have looked at the two squads, ours and Aberdeen’s and said, ‘right, they’ve spent over €1 million on their squad, their players are paid way more than us, we’ve no chance’. But feck that. You use every trick you can think of. I just felt like winding him (Skovdahl) up.” 

Aggressive in his pre-match delivery, Collins and Bohs were unashamedly defensive for the first hour of the first-leg. “We were negative on everything,” Collins recalls. “Corner kicks, we barely sent a player up for them. They were like ‘what the fu** is going on?’ They scored first. 1-0. Then we settled down. Eight minutes to go, we got another corner. ‘Oi, Shauny,’ I shouted, ‘up you go’. Shauny was Shaun Maher, a talented defender who’d go on to play for Bournemouth the following season.

So Shauny went up and the ball went in. 1-1. Then with time running out, the two inner-city boys, O’Keeffe and Molloy, became heroes, the former winning a penalty, the latter converting it. 2-1 Bohs. The home leg still to come.

Source: Peter O DOHERTY/YouTube

“I put the eye on Skovdahl, I didn’t want to wind up the (Aberdeen) players as it would have done his job for him,” Collins said. A number of Aberdeen fans gathered behind the Bohemians dugout for the return leg, scuffling with security staff as they looked to put ‘the eye’ on Collins.

They shouldn’t have bothered. The more he was abused, the more he loved it. “Louder, louder,’ I kept saying to them. I just thought it was great craic that they were slating me instead of screaming support for their team. I didn’t want them to stop.”

He got his wish. Meanwhile, a match was unfolding. O’Keeffe was sent off, Aberdeen levelled the tie on aggregate and continued to push for a winner.

“I was shocked at how naive they were,” Collins said. “They had an extra man and didn’t change a thing. They gave us too much respect. Technically they were good but they didn’t have motivation or spirit. They panicked.”

And they were out. Seventeen years earlier the same club had beaten Real Madrid to lift the Cup Winners Cup. Now they had become the first Scottish club to lose a European tie to an Irish team. Make no mistake, in League of Ireland circles, this was a big deal and Collins knew it. After the final whistle, his attempt to embrace Skovdahl led to an angry exchange. “The only people I hug are my wife and grandchildren,” the Dane said in an interview seven years later. “Collins was being far too familiar for that sort of situation. He also created a lot of ill feeling around those matches with some of his comments.

“He showed a lack of respect. I did not like the man.”

The Bohemians manager couldn’t have cared less. There were other friends to make. Kaiserslautern – Bundesliga champions just two years earlier – were drawn against the Dublin side in the next round. “I watched 50 videos of them,” Collins said, “and couldn’t spot a weakness.”

You can understand why. Mario Basler was part of Germany’s Euro 96 winning squad and had scored the opening goal in the 1999 Champions League final; Youri Djorkaeff had won the ’98 World Cup; Miroslav Klose would go on to play in the 2002 World Cup final and end his career as the top scorer in World Cup finals history. The German side won 3-1 in Dublin.

But the fun was only just beginning. Basler had got on Collins’ nerves and ahead of the return game, Collins decided it was time to call him out. “He is one of those players would like to see his manager’s position weakened,” Collins said in the pre-match press briefing. “I reckon he has his eye on the (manager’s) job. He plays to the fans. He tries to ingratiate himself with them and if I was Otto Rehhagel (then the Kaiserslautern manager) I would be concerned. Very concerned.”

jeff-strasser-and-trevor-molloy Trevor Molloy stands up to Jeff Strasser. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

Twenty years on, Collins laughs at the memory. Those four weeks in Europe were the time of his life, the amusement he derived from winding people up, the mental challenge of jostling with German football’s elite. He got the biggest buzz, though, from looking at his players and figuring out a way to get the best from them. Ahead of the second-leg, winger Davy Williamson became his pet project. “Management is all about trying to figure out a weakness and then putting a plan in place to exploit it. Now that’s all well and good until you are facing a team packed with internationals who have played in World Cup and Champions League finals. So, day after day, I watched the tapes of Kaiserslautern’s games and just couldn’t see anything there to capitalise on. It annoyed me.”

Adding to his frustration was this sense he was being patronised. Ahead of the second-leg, a German journalist asked Collins if he was enjoying his vacation. Now, with the greatest respect to Kaiserslautern, it’s not exactly Venice. “A holiday?” Collins answered. “If I was going on holiday, I wouldn’t come here.”

A stadium tour was suggested. They were shown the club’s dressing rooms and trophy room, before being handed a pencil, rubber and notepad. Collins stared at the guide in disbelief. “Did they think we were secondary school kids on an outing?” he wonders. That night, he was deliberating over something much more important, the absence of a decisive game-plan.

Then, at 5am on the morning of the game, it came to him. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he turned on his bedside lamp, and used the hotel’s complimentary pen to scribble a few notes. Hany Ramzy, the Egyptian defender who played against Ireland in Italia 90, had a fondness for carrying the ball out of defence. “But he wasn’t as keen to get quickly back in position,” Collins said. Turning over onto a fresh page, he drew a quick diagram, altering his formation there and then to include Williamson on the team as a ‘lazy’ winger.

“We played a version of 4-5-1,” Collins says, “but it wasn’t your traditional system. Davy was told to hang high. ‘Don’t bleedin’ track back,’ we said to him because we knew that when you came up against a side who used three at the back that at some stage you’d get a bit of space.”

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Sure enough they did. In the first-half, O’Keeffe delivered a clever diagonal pass, Williamson the recipient, Ramzy – as predicted – caught out of position. From here, Williamson crossed for Glen Crowe to score. Bohs were back in the tie.

Source: KillianM2/YouTube

And they could have won it, Crowe having a goal disallowed before he missed a decent chance. By the end the Kaiserslautern fans had given up on their own side and, instead, started chanting ‘Bohemians’. “Had Crowie’s offside goal been allowed, we’d have gone through, I’m convinced of that,” Collins says.

Instead, he had to console himself with a league and cup double that season. “I knew we’d something special in the squad. Shaun Maher, Toccy O’Connor, Wayne Russell, Glen Crowe, Kevin Hunt, Simon Webb, Trevor. I knew we’d win the league. Their spirit was unbelievable.”

So was the party that night in Kaiserslautern. “Good times,” Collins says, “you have to enjoy your wins.”

His opposite number wasn’t having such a good time. Ten days later, Rehhagel was sacked, his career in crisis. “Where now for Otto?” asked Bild.

The answer was the Greek national team who he guided, four years later, to Euro 2004.

Collins, meanwhile, was sacked by Bohs, re-emerging with Carlisle, Dublin City, Shamrock Rovers, Athlone, Derry, Monaghan, Waterford and, for a brief spell, Floriana in Malta where he bumped into FC Frankfurt’s General Manager. “Yer man told me Frankfurt did a bit of homework on me after that win (over Kaiserslautern).”

What might have been.

“Sure look,” Collins laughs, “I could barely speak English never mind German.”

Then he pauses, thinking better of a brief descent into self-deprecation.

“Let’s face it,” he smiles, “I was a better manager than Skovdahl. And I was better than Rehhagel too. Okay, he went on to win the Euros with Greece. But if I’d have been managing them, they’d have won the World Cup.”

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Garry Doyle

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