Shamrock Rovers face Shkupi on the cusp of big European achievement - just don't expect to see it on TV

Shamrock Rovers can guarantee group stage football by progressing through the Europa League against Shkupi tonight.

Shamrock Rovers fans during last week's first leg.
Shamrock Rovers fans during last week's first leg.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

SHAMROCK ROVERS STAND on the cusp of European group stage football for only the second time in their history – but this latest stage of their evolution will not be televised. 

No Irish broadcaster has picked up tonight’s tie with Shkupi [KO: 8pm] despite its enormous significance: Rovers offered all of their European ties to RTÉ, Virgin Media and TG4 at the start of the European run, but thus far, only RTÉ have screened ties, the goalless draw away to Hibernians of Malta and the subsequent 3-0 loss to Ludogorets of Bulgaria in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League. 

RTÉ broadcast St Pat’s magnificent win away to CSKA Sofia in the Conference League qualifiers last week, and seem to be showing the return leg in Tallaght this week, too. 

Which means tonight’s Europa League third qualifying round second leg against Shkupi – into which Rovers take a 3-1 first-leg lead – hasn’t been picked up for traditional broadcast. 

Another issue is the fact Rovers have not yet been able to guarantee access to a livestream on the LOI TV platform. Those rights are the responsibility of the home team, and Shkupi put engagement with Rovers regarding a stream on the long finger, much to Rovers’ frustration. Some club figures at Rovers speculate that the lack of engagement may be a reprisal on behalf of the club’s owner, who issued a dyspeptic statement last week which thrashed the Irish government and claimed the routing of Shkupi’s charter flight to Dublin was an “evil” and a “cheap game that has no place in football.”

The travelling Shkupi delegates quietly disavowed that statement last week – it seems to have been a solo run by their owner – and the fact Rovers are flying home from North Macedonia via Shannon is further proof that Shkupi’s landing in Clare was not some dastardly conspiracy cooked up by a coalition government currently on its holidays. 

“It’s really disappointing”, said Rovers manager Stephen Bradley. “Hopefully we can get a stream for the fans to watch it back home. It is such a big game for the club and for Irish football, hopefully they can get to watch it.”

Striker Rory Gaffney was admittedly less exercised about the prospect of his family and friends being unable to watch a tie he labels “the biggest game of my career.” 

“I suppose if I was younger maybe. But I don’t really care if nobody watches it as long as we go through. I’ll remember it and I suppose everyone connected with the team will be there.

“It would be great, obviously, if the family can watch it. But if they can’t, I’ll tell them about it afterwards.”

stephen-bradley-speaks-with-rory-gaffney-and-graham-burke-before-the-game Stephen Bradley offers tactical advice to Rory Gaffney (left) and Graham Burke ahead of last week's first leg. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

For all of the league’s progress, Rovers have been here before. When they first qualified for a group phase back in 2011 – courtesy of a stunning extra-time win away to Partizan Belgrade – the tie wasn’t set to be broadcast until Setanta Sports stepped in the day before kick-off. 

For all of the ongoing telly travails, Rovers will take a similar outcome tonight.

There are a couple of important differences from that famous night in Belgrade, however: tonight they can guarantee qualification for the group phase of the third-tier Europa Conference League, as that is the consolation prize for losing in the playoff round of the Europa League, Rovers’ primary prize for progress against Shkupi. That tie will be a free-hit against a vaunted opponent dropping out of the Champions League, either Qarabag of Azerbaijan or Ferencvaros of Hungary. (Should they be eliminated tonight, Rovers will drop into a play-off for the Conference League group phase, against either the champions of Kosovo or the Faroe Islands.) 

Thus the stakes – and a guaranteed prize fund of more than €3 million – rest on tonight’s second leg in North Macedonia. Rovers’ won the first leg 3-1 without ever really being at their best.

They raced into a two-goal lead but lost a grip of the second half – particularly when midfielder Chris McCann went off injured – and then saw their lead halved when Brazilian midfielder Queven rifled a shot in from long-range. (They had spent most of the night testing Alan Mannus from distance.)

Shkupi’s owner promised his players would “fight like lions” over the alleged injustice of flying to Shannon, and they manifested their aggression in ill-discipline – a late red card disrupted their own momentum, and Gary O’Neill’s stunning strike with the game’s last kick earned Rovers a two-goal cushion. 

“We need to go up a few levels to win the game tomorrow night”, said Bradley. “Alan was fantastic last week, he made some really important saves, too many important saves for our liking so we’ve got to make sure that we go up a few levels.”

Those ambitions are complicated by the absence of Chris McCann. The experienced midfielder was substituted with 30 minutes remaining of the first leg with a calf injury: that he still won the Man of the Match award is testament to his work in the game’s first hour. 

“He has been brilliant for us”, said Bradley of McCann. “He has brought a calmness and composure when we have needed it. He has forced us to play when it’s easy just to kick it, and then get caught up in a 50-50 game. Chris takes control of games. He is a miss for us, no doubt, but the squad is really strong and is filled with good players. So I’m sure whoever comes in will be ready to play and fill that void.” 

Gary O’Neill will start again, with Dylan Watts dropping deeper and the introduction of Richie Towell the likeliest Plan B in McCann’s absence. Another option is to reintroduce Jack Byrne. 

Byrne has hardly kicked a ball in Europe thus far – but he has recovered from a hip flexor niggle and is ready to play tonight. Byrne has played just 20 minutes of football since the third week of May, but Bradley has no concerns about his fitness. 

jack-byrne Jack Byrne, watching on during the first leg at Tallaght Stadium. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“A player of Jack’s ability can influence any game at any level, so I have no doubt. He isn’t a player who loses fitness quickly, he has been working. Even though he’s been injured, he has been able to work behind the scenes, he just hasn’t got that final bit over the line in terms of being ready to play. He isn’t a million miles away, in terms of fitness.”

Shkupi have yet to kick off their domestic season, but are boosted by the return to fitness of experienced full-back Vladica Brdarovski, who has played seven times for the North Macedonia national team. His introduction at half-time last week greatly improved Shkupi, who need to chase this game from the off. Bradley is in no doubt as to what should be his side’s approach, in spite of the two-goal cushion. 

“We know what we have to do, we have to win the game. It’s that simple. Try and do what we do every week. Respect them, but focus on our game plan, of going and winning the game. That is our only focus.”

If League of Ireland clubs are going to be on TV regularly, it seems they have to make themselves unignorable. 

Shamrock Rovers are on the verge of doing exactly that tonight. 

Shamrock Rovers (Possible XI): Alan Mannus; Sean Gannon, Sean Hoare, Lee Grace; Ronan Finn; Gary O’Neill, Dylan Watts, Andy Lyons; Richie Towell, Aaron Greene; Rory Gaffney 

Shkupi: (Possible XI) Kristijan Naumovski (captain); Angelce Timovski, Senghor Faustin, Gagi Margvelashvili, Vladica Brdarovski; Kristijan Trapanovski, Queven, Diene Albert Lamane, Renaldo Cephas; Freddy Alvarez, Sundat Adetunji  

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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