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'The other side of the bench was Modric, Bale and Harry Redknapp' - A historic moment for Irish football

Enda Stevens, Karl Sheppard, Ciaran Kilduff and Macdara Ferris remember Shamrock Rovers’ Europa League group run 10 years on.

Rovers 2011

IT’S BEEN 10 years since one of the most important moments in Irish football history.

Shamrock Rovers qualifying for the Europa League group stages arguably helped pave the way for Dundalk to emulate that feat in 2016, and again last year.

It also gave the League of Ireland a much-needed shot in the arm. It had only been three years since the country descended into a major recession, prompting high unemployment and low national morale.

The domestic game was an inevitable casualty, with several players and teams suffering badly as a result of the wider societal problems.

Yet in contrast with many other clubs, Shamrock Rovers began to thrive around this period.

Having looked under serious threat of going out of existence as recently as 2005 and spent time in the First Division, by the end of the decade, the club were on the up.

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Twenty-two years on since the controversial sale of Glenmalure Park, they had found a new home, with their first game at Tallaght Stadium played in March 2009.

And from that point, their success grew. The appointment of Michael O’Neill, whose only previous managerial experience had come with Brechin City in the Scottish Second Division, was key to their ascent.

O’Neill built a formidable squad, guiding the team to second place in 2009, before securing back-to-back title triumphs and overseeing the 2011 Setanta Cup win.

Yet undoubtedly the highlight of the former Newcastle player’s reign was guiding the club to the 2011 Europa League group stages.

They had experienced a taste of glamour the previous season, when they came up against Serie A giants Juventus, producing a creditable display against that calibre of opposition, and ultimately losing 3-0 on aggregate.

The following season, they began life in the Champions League, beating Estonian side Flora Tallinn 1-0 on aggregate, before suffering a comprehensive 3-0 defeat to a Copenhagen side that included Thomas Delaney, who was recently one of Denmark’s star players at the Euros.

That loss meant they dropped down into the Europa League play-off round. Partizan Belgrade awaited them, with a place in the competition’s group stages up for grabs. Not many people were tipping the Irish side to advance, particularly against a team who had experience of playing in the group stages of both Europe’s main club competitions.

The Rovers squad included many of the best players to have graced the League of Ireland in recent times, with Dan Murray, Pat Sullivan, Gary Twigg, Craig Sives, Stephen O’Donnell, Conor McCormack and Billy Dennehy among the stellar list of names.

A young Ciaran Kilduff was also part of the squad, featuring in five of the games off the bench during the Europa League campaign.

“I retired this year and you look back on the best moments you had. That was certainly one of them and it’s hard to believe it’s 10 years ago,” Kilduff tells The42.

“Some of my best friends were part of that trip and still are. Fellas I talk to every day. You sometimes wonder if that’s the reason when you share so many good moments and memories with a group, you nearly end up friends with them for life.”

Source: Gleth678/YouTube

The Hoops took some encouragement from the first leg against Partizan at Tallaght.

“They’d been the better team but I think in the last half-hour of the game, we actually battered them. We pushed on, Gary McCabe scored a goal and brought the tie back for us. And we probably knew ourselves then: ‘Listen, these can be got at.’”

The second leg away from home was an altogether different prospect. Long-time Rovers fan and author of ‘Tallaght Time,’ Macdara Ferris, was one of the 43 supporters who travelled over from Ireland.

“Rovers hadn’t won any game in the Europan Cup or Champions League qualifiers in the history of the club, having played something like 18 matches,” he recalls. “So winning the first-round Champions League qualifier against Tallinn was quite a big thing. But to go and win away — there had been very few away wins ever in Europe [for Irish sides] and that’s what they needed to do to go through. But that was probably [the feeling] outside of the club. Michael O’Neill probably instilled a bit more belief.”

The relative lack of travelling supporters could be put down to a couple of factors. It was a third away game in the space of a few weeks, and supporters would have had to be continually getting time off work to travel. There were also no direct flights from Ireland to Serbia on offer, making it an awkward journey out there.

“I travelled out through Vienna and there might have been 8-10 Rovers fans on that flight,” Ferris recalls. “And when we landed in Belgrade, we produced our Irish passport. There was a bit of a kerfuffle at passport control and they were like: ‘Can you stand aside?’ Was there an Interpol arrest warrant out for any of us? But they actually brought us into a room, the immigration police gave us a number for Ivan, who was the policeman to ring if there was any trouble.

“The Partisan fans had quite a bad reputation. A Toulouse fan was killed there a couple of years previously, so the security was quite big.”

shamrock-rovers-fans-sitting-with-partizan-fans Shamrock Rovers fans pictured in Belgrade. Source: Aleksandar Djorovic/INPHO

“[Ciaran] Kilduff and myself were going out for the warm-up,” Karl Sheppard remembers. “There was this chap in the crowd and he points at us, just as you go out, and he gives you the cutting the head off sign, and we said: ‘Right, this is intimidating enough.’

“But it was great — it rose you an extra 10% because if you don’t play well, [you thought:] ‘These will be right on top of you.’”

Nevertheless, Sheppard admits confidence wasn’t especially high ahead of the tie.

“When you look at what the team did in the previous season against Juventus, people on the outside would have looked at it and thought: ‘They have a bit of a chance to do something.’

“But if anyone going into the away leg said they thought we had a chance, they were lying because the odds were massively against us going into the game. Even the build-up around it and the mood in the camp was ‘we’ll go out there and do our best and we’ll see where it takes us.’

“But as the game goes on, they hit the post a couple of times, Ryan Thompson made a few great saves and you think: ‘Maybe it is our night. Let’s just hang in there.’ And when Pat scored that goal, it was: ‘Right, now we’re really in a game here.’”

The match was especially significant for Sheppard. The former Everton trainee had only just returned to action. Earlier that year, he had been diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, which required the young player to undergo heart surgery.

“I played against Galway United and my second match was to come off the bench there. For a couple of games beforehand, against Tallinn and Copenhagen, I had to sit out and watch them. I was pestering our doctor at the time saying ‘just let me play,’ and as I came into that game, I was so eager to do well.

“Before I came on, I was saying to myself: ‘Just run as much as you can and let all the frustration out now.’ And thankfully, I came on and had a good enough game as well.”

Kilduff adds: “The three subs that came on that night were me, Karl Sheppard and Stevie O’Donnell. Obviously, I made the run and shot for the goal, Karl won the penalty and Stevie scores the penalty. That kind of summed up how strong that squad was if the three of us could come on and impact that game.”

And remarkably, the previously hostile crowd turned into an appreciative one.

“The fans who were so intimidating actually clapped us off the pitch,” Sheppard explains. “And then seeing what they did to their own team, they gave them quite the abuse that we were looking to avoid.”

enda-stevens Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

A young Enda Stevens was at left-back that night for the visitors. The Dubliner has since gone on to play for Ireland at international level and Sheffield United in the Premier League, but he still considers the Partizan game one of the highlights of his career.

“It was the first time we’d achieved that as a team, qualifying for the Europa League group stages. We all knew that going into the game, what we could achieve. That was our second season together and we were already challenging for the league, so it was a very successful squad that we had there and to go and do that was some achievement.”

“When they came back to the hotel, we all lined up to cheer them in, as did the hotel staff,” Ferris recalls. “Then, we sat in the bar and they put the match on again. The supporters, the Rovers directors, the four journalists that travelled out and the team all watched the game together.

“There were probably 20 playing staff and maybe 10 admin, and everyone watched the game back together, waiting for the goals to happen. And of course, Pat Sullivan’s goal was as good a goal as you’re going to see.

“And one of the players didn’t have any casual gear. So they were going out afterwards pretty late, and a fan ended up swapping their polo top for a Rovers-crested t-shirt with one of the players and it’s probably up on his wall now.”

Asked about the first thing that springs to mind about that trip, Sheppard replies: “The night out afterwards.”

He continues: “And when I say ‘night out,’ people will probably think a load of beers and all. But I shared a room with Ciaran Kilduff and we were on such a buzz that neither of us had a drop of alcohol and it was still one of the best nights of my life. It was just the adrenaline pumping through us after the game, it was some achievement.

“And other small things — the day of the game, Pat Sullivan was sitting outside tanning himself and drinking a bottle of Coke and having an ice cream. If that happened nowadays, the player would probably be fined, whereas Pat steps up and scores one of the best goals I’ve ever seen.

“Lads are going down for breakfast and there are a couple of guys who are just returning from the night out before and they’re playing tennis. Small bits like that stand out in my mind.”

Stevens adds: “There was a funny story when we went out celebrating in Belgrade. One of the locals came out with us. There were about three or four of the players [who were out]. He was driving us around to all the different spots to go. We were on our way back to the hotel and the car broke down. We were in the middle of Belgrade. We didn’t know where we were but we had to jump out and push the car down the road and bump start it to get us back to the hotel in time.

“I think the flight was leaving soon enough and we had to be back. It was the early hours of the morning. We weren’t supposed to tell anyone because the manager wanted to keep it on the DL, as we had a big game against Dundalk when we came back, so he wanted to keep it quiet that we were out. But we won the game [against Dundalk] anyway.”

Source: CuChoileain/YouTube

Only a couple of days after the Partizan triumph, it was announced that Rovers had agreed to sell Stevens to Premier League outfit Aston Villa, though the transfer would not go through until the following January, thereby enabling his involvement in the forthcoming group games.

“I do know they came over to watch me in the European games, but I couldn’t tell you [what difference it made],” he says. “I’m one of them that doesn’t really want to know who is in the crowd watching me.

“The one thing I really wanted to do was stay back and play in the group stages of the Europa League and thankfully they allowed me to do that.

“I haven’t played in Europe since those games, so it’s one of those experiences you’ve got to take, they don’t come around too often.”

Qualifying for the group stages, of course, was also a major boost financially for the Hoops, even if it pales in comparison with today’s figures.

“It was about €1.1 million,” says Ferris. “Whereas by the time Dundsalk got there in 2016, it was worth €6 million. I think we probably thought it was going to be a bigger deal than it turned out to be. Rovers’ turnover at the time would have been about €2 million, so you were getting 50% of your turnover but you weren’t getting three times your turnover.”

“We were on 36-week contracts that season and to go into the Europa League meant that we got paid all year round,” adds Sheppard. 

“As soon as the game is over, you realise: ‘Okay, we’re through with the money that comes with it for the club.’ They thankfully seemed to have spent it wisely and put it into a training ground and the stadium’s been done up as well.”

The group-stage campaign began in a somewhat underwhelming fashion. Rovers were well beaten 3-0 at home to Rubin Kazan. Obafemi Martins, the former Newcastle striker who joined the Russian club the previous year for a reported €17 million fee, opened the scoring after just three minutes.

Next up was a trip to White Hart Lane, where Stephen Rice gave Rovers a shock lead shortly after half-time. Nonetheless, just after the hour mark, three goals in the space of five minutes from Roman Pavlyuchenko, Jermain Defoe and Giovani dos Santos earned Spurs a 3-1 win.

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“It was really special,” Kilduff says. “Gareth Bale and I were unused subs that night, we swapped jerseys after the game, so I have his jersey at home. He was probably rested for different reasons [to me].

“The match was on 29 September, which was my 23rd birthday. I remember going over there and training the night before, they had to drag us off the pitch. It was great going into the game. I expected I might get on that night, I didn’t in the end. We were sitting on the bench, the other side of the bench was Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Harry Redknapp.

“But being a bit younger and having that experience coming from where a lot of us were coming from, it was amazing because not many people would have that.”

Source: aDraftSoulja/YouTube

On the game itself, Kilduff adds: “We probably scored too early. They went up a gear and just blew you out of the water. But for a group of young, mostly Irish lads, to be experiencing that for the first time, the whole country bought into it, that’s why it was so special.”

The following month, Rovers faced the Greek side PAOK in the Toumba Stadium in Thessaloniki. It was probably their best performance of the group stages, as they suffered a narrow 2-1 defeat. It was a particularly memorable night for Sheppard, as he scored the visitors’ solitary goal, which drew them level in the game.

“I was supposed to play right wing that game. Gary Twigg got injured and next thing, Michael O’Neill pulled me aside and asked: ‘Would you start up front?’

“I was delighted to score, but my overriding emotion was just disappointment after we conceded, and it was a game we felt we should have at least got a point out of, if not won because we had a few chances. If you look back now, I was 20 at the time and to score in the Europa League group stages was obviously huge for me and something that I probably took for granted.”

the-shamrock-rovers-team The Shamrock Rovers team pictured ahead of the Rubin Kazan away game. Source: ©INPHO

Rovers also lost their home game 3-1 to PAOK, before a 4-1 defeat away to Rubin Kazan on 30 November, with the temperature -5 degrees at kick-off.

“It was a place you’d [otherwise] probably never be in your life. Lads on the bench were covered up in blankets,” says Kilduff.

“It was the first time I ever experienced cold like that,” adds Stevens. “They were a good team at the time, but that was a great experience, to travel so far away to play a football match in that.”

Rovers finished their campaign amid a 4-0 defeat against Tottenham in Tallaght. It was a night in which an 18-year-old Harry Kane replaced Defoe late on and promptly scored his first-ever Spurs goal. And the future England international was one of a host of star names on display.

“It was great to come up against Steven Pienaar, they had Defoe playing and a few others,” says Sheppard. “I was at Everton when I was a youngster. I remember Pienaar was there on his first day. I trained with him. It quickly became apparent that he was going one way and I went the complete opposite way where I was almost shunned. So for me, it was a nice moment, to be able to share a pitch with him.

“And as well, coming up against that quality, I remember Carlo Cudicini took me down. It was offside and he was giving out to me for going down too easy and I was telling him where to go. After the game, I was sitting back almost laughing, thinking: ‘There was me telling Cudicini where to go.’

“When you’re in the moment, you get carried away and you don’t think about the names you’re up against. When you step back, you think of Kane, Cudicini, all these brilliant players who have gone on to do massive things in the game.”

While some people felt Rovers would build on that Europa League success, in reality, it was closer to the end of an era for that team. Michael O’Neill subsequently left to become manager of Northern Ireland, while some key players also departed soon after.

Sheppard was among those to leave, as he signed for Reading the following January.

“A few clubs were watching me in and around that time and Reading were one. I know for a fact that they wouldn’t have signed me off the back of my league season [alone]. That ended a small bit earlier than the Europa League run and they were able to see me against Premier League quality in the Spurs game and PAOK were a team who very much could have held their own in the Premier League at the time.”

“It was probably the right time to go,” adds Stevens, of his Premier League move. “Most of that squad lasted another year together, then they all kind of broke up and a lot of changes were made.

“And they’ve come around full circle now, winning the league [last year] and hopefully, they’ll win it again this year.”

soccer-uefa-europa-league-group-a-shamrock-rovers-v-tottenham-hotspur-tallaght-stadium Tottenham Hotspurs Harry Kane (right) celebrates scoring against Shamrock Rovers. Source: PA

Even a manager as accomplished as Stephen Kenny could not galvanise the Rovers squad amid this transitional phase. They finished a disappointing fourth in the league the following season, while they suffered an embarrassing Champions League defeat to Lithuanian side Ekranas.

Ultimately, it was Kenny’s Dundalk side who picked up Rovers’ mantle, as they not only qualified but subsequently picked up four points and delivered some impressive displays in the group stages in 2016.

“The way to better it would be to go the Champions League route,” concludes Sheppard. “And I’ll be honest, I think that’s still a million miles off because the funding within the league isn’t there yet. It needs a heck of a lot better funding from the government for stadiums and the revenue will obviously bring things up.

“But even in terms of the Europa League, it’s very much attainable now in the League of Ireland. From my time with Rovers to my time finishing with Shelbourne, I know there’s a huge difference in the players that are playing in the league now. It’s a lot more technically good players who are tactically astute, whereas previously, it would have been more about your size and stature.

“If it’s looking at a centre-half now, it’s making sure they can play football and defend, whereas previously, it wouldn’t have had anything to do with playing football, it was more to do with how good of a defender you were. And that [change] transitions fantastically well into the European games.”

“The best thing about 2016 [with Dundalk] was how competitive we were in it,” adds Kilduff. “We went into the last game still with a chance of getting out of the group.

“I just think with Rovers, the fact that it was the first time, and it was the unknown and there was that element of disbelief that it had been done, it’ll be hard to top that, to be honest.”

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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