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Famous draw with Liverpool, beating Shels in Dublin and dumping out PSV - Brann’s 1996/97 European Odyssey
Shamrock Rovers take on SK Brann in the first leg of their Europa League qualifying tie in Norway this evening.

SHAMROCK ROVERS SUPPORTERS descending on Bergen know their side face a stiff test against SK Brann in the first round of Europa League qualification, but it’s a challenge which Stephen Bradley’s men are more than capable of overcoming.

Rovers broke new ground for Irish football when Michael O’Neill’s side of 2011/12 became the first club from these shores to make it all the way to the group stages, and while Dundalk have been the trailblazers for Irish football in recent years, the Hoops still hold an important link with this competition, always keen to match the dizzying heights of their recent past.

Soccer - UEFA Cup Winners Cup Quarter Final ECWC - Liverpool v SK Brann Laurence Griffiths Steve McManaman battling with Tore André Flo at Anfield. Laurence Griffiths

Brann currently sit fifth in the Norwegian Eliteserien table. Historically an underachieving club which has won three league titles and six domestic cups, they notably made it all the way to the last 32 of the old Uefa Cup back in 2008, where a David Moyes-led Everton put an end to their charge with a resounding 8-1 aggregate win which featured a Yakubu hat-trick at Goodison Park.

But it was a meeting with the red half of Merseyside more than a decade prior which local fans remember with the most amount of wonder, affection and pride when listing off Brann’s greatest achievements — in a magical 1996/97 Uefa Cup Winners’ Cup campaign the Norwegians made it all the way to the quarter-finals.

It was a remarkable run which saw Brann stop off in Dublin along the way, beating Damien Richardson’s Shelbourne home and away in the first qualifying round in August 1996, before dumping out Belgian Cup winners Cercle Brugge K.S.V, followed by Dutch giants PSV (boasting stars like Jaap Stam, Phillip Cocu, Boudewijn Zenden and Eidur Gudjohnsen) in a massive upset.

A famous 2-2 draw in Eindhoven was enough to secure a 4-3 aggregate win for Brann, which set up a mouth-watering clash with Roy Evans’ Liverpool in the last eight. A Uefa Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final marked the high-point of the club’s history in European competition to date, in particular the chance to play in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 40,000 at Anfield.

Joey O'Brien celebrates his side's first goal Ryan Byrne / INPHO Shamrock Rovers face SK Brann in the first-leg of their Europa League qualifying tie this evening. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Brann will be rekindled with Dublin opposition later this evening. It seems fitting given their great European Odyssey during that 1996/97 season kicked-off at Tolka Park against one of Shamrock Rovers’ most bitter rivals. Shelbourne, fresh off winning the FAI Cup, were the great White Hope of Irish football in European competition that year.

“A win over two legs is essential,” wrote Gerry Thornley in the Irish Times ahead of the preliminary round tie with the Norwegians. “By whatever means possible — be it off a Shelbourne bum in the last minute of the second leg. If the [League of Ireland] is to make a lethargic and sometimes cynical Irish football public wake up and take notice, then Brann must be beaten.”

They weren’t. Stephen Geoghegan scored at Tolka and Mark Rutherford hit another at Brann Stadion (where Rovers play tonight), but the Reds would succumb to a disheartening 5-2 aggregate defeat as SK Brann marched onto the next round, leaving a wounded Shelbourne in their wake.

“The last rights were duly observed on Shelbourne’s participation in the European Cup Winners’ Cup on a balmy evening in Bergen last night,” read a newspaper report from the second leg.

Damien Richardson 1/5/1998 Dundalk vs Shelbourne Billy Stickland / INPHO Damien Richardson's Shelbourne lost 5-2 to Brann in the Uefa Cup Winners' Cup. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Soccer - UEFA Cup Winners Cup Quarter Final ECWC - Liverpool v SK Brann EMPICS Sport Robbie Fowler, who scored twice in the second-leg, dribbles past SK Brann captain Claus Eftevaag at Anfield. EMPICS Sport

After swatting aside Shels, Brann dismantled Belgium Cup winners Cercle Brugge K.S.V 6-3 over two legs, before causing one of the upsets of the competition by outclassing the mighty PSV — arguably the greatest result in the club’s 111-year history. PSV had spanked Sparta Rotterdam to claim the 1996 KNVB Cup, but were stunned against the Norwegians, who prevailed 4-3 to leave Dick Advocaat completely embarrassed.

Tore André Flo, who would later enjoy spells with Chelsea, Rangers and Leeds United, and top scorer Mons Ivar Mjelde, who later managed the club between 2003 and 2008, shone during the European campaign as Brann set up an astonishing quarter-final clash with four-time European Cup winners Liverpool.

“It’s just like the old days at Anfield,” Clive Tyldesley boomed in commentary before kick-off of the second leg, after Brann had secured a remarkable 1-1 draw in Bergen two weeks beforehand. Geir Hasund gave the hosts an early lead, before Robbie Fowler levelled proceedings with a sublime effort, saving Reds’ blushes.

sp1873 / YouTube

“As we predicted, it was a tough old game,” Liverpool boss Roy Evans reflected in Bergen. “They said they would make it difficult and they did. We cooled after a good opening, but overall I was happy with the result. It was a truly great goal by Robbie Fowler.

“It’s nice to see one go in for a change. It’s nice to have the away goal, but it’s not over yet. They are one tough team — their record speaks for itself.”

Fowler grabbed two more at Anfield, while Stan Collymore also found the back of the net as Brann’s surreal, dizzying Cup Winners’ Cup dream came to a sad but fitting end against one of European football’s historic heavyweights in front of a packed crowd which, in a much more measured way, harkened back to electric Anfield nights of old in decades past.

Brann had become the first club in the history of Norwegian football to reach the last four of any European competition. Since that incredible 1996/97 run, Rosenborg and Vålerenga have both matched the achievement, but no-one has ever surpassed it and gotten to a European semi-final.

Liverpool FC in Norway PA Archive / PA Images Roy Evans and members of the Reds squad at Brann Stadion, where Shamrock Rovers play tonight. PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

download Twitter @PSV1913Historie PSV's Wim Jonk, Jaap Stam and Philip Cocu walk off dejected after being knocked out by SK Brann in 1996. Twitter @PSV1913Historie

Tonight they embark on another European campaign. Like Shamrock Rovers’ run to the group stages of the Europa League under Michael O’Neill, supporters from both clubs in Bergen will linger on their iconic moments in European competition — all the while hoping to come out on top and carve out more memories in the near future.

Stephen Bradley said his mission over recent seasons was to close the gap on Dundalk and Cork City on the domestic front. Now 22 points ahead of the Leesiders in the Premier Division and presently the Lilywhites’ only realistic title contender this season, they certainly have made progress in that regard.

Shamrock Rovers have finished no higher than third place since 2011, but bar a heroic end to the season from Bohemians they will likely have second place sewn up while trying to close the eight-point gap which stands between Dundalk and the Hoops vying for the title.

Now with the excitement of European action on the continent to come, Bradley is optimistic about his side’s chances in Bergen tonight, while also acknowledging a tough test to come against a side Rovers beat 3-2 in a friendly back in 2015 under Pat Fenlon.

Stephen Bradley celebrates after the game with Roberto Lopes Tommy Dickson / INPHO Stephen Bradley's side face a tough test in Bergen this evening in their first-leg. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

“We know they’re a good side and playing at a good level,” he said of Brann.

“They have a lot of strengths but we know their weaknesses as well and we’ll try and exploit them. Home or away we’ll give them respect but I feel that we can go and win the game over there.”

With plenty of happy memories and proud history behind them bouncing across the continent, both sides at Brann Stadion will hope tonight is just the start of another memorable European Odyssey to come this summer.

 The first leg of SK Brann v Shamrock Rovers in the first qualifying round of the Europa League kicks off at 6.00pm at Brann Stadion and is live on eir Sport 1

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