Hoop Dreams

A very different Shamrock Rovers - 'I didn't have holidays to play Europa League'

A little over a decade on from the club’s ground-breaking European campaign, those at the heart of it explain how much things have changed for the Class of 2022.

Rovers Europa Shamrock Rovers began their Europa League campaign at home to Rubin Kazan.

IF YOU WANT an idea of the difference between the Shamrock Rovers that qualified for the Europa League group stages in 2011 and the club which will begin their Europa Conference League campaign tomorrow, the story of Pat Flynn is a prime example.

The defender was 26-years-old and found himself on the fringes of matchday squads as the Hoops secured successive League of Ireland Premier Division titles that year.

He was on the bench for the historic victory over Partizan Belgrade on 25 August, a 2-1 away win which meant the Hoops broke the glass ceiling for Irish clubs by becoming the first in history to reach the group stages of European competition.

Rovers already played two rounds of Champions League qualifiers in July – against Flora Tallin and FC Copenhagen – so by the time the opening group stage game against Rubin Kazan came around in September, Flynn had just one slight problem.

“I didn’t have enough holidays left to take from my day job to be able to stay involved,” he recalls. “I just had a little boy too, I couldn’t give up the job so had to make the decision to leave Rovers.”

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It was a tough one to take given he was one of the handful of Rovers players from that squad who was juggling a full-time job (in his case a business development manager with Coca Cola) with 3pm training sessions.

His brushes with officials – sent off twice that year – also didn’t help his cause, but manager Michael O’Neill was still willing to offer him a contract extension to remain part of the squad for the Europa League.

paddy-kavanagh-and-patrick-flynn-celebrate Aleksandar Djorovic / INPHO Pat Flynn carries Paddy Kavanagh on his back after the win in Belgrade. Aleksandar Djorovic / INPHO / INPHO

“I was sent off in my last game against Sligo. Michael said he couldn’t play me again cause he felt I was a marked man with my reputation. He said it to me straight: ‘I can’t play you because your like Hannibal Lecter, it’s too much of a risk’. I understood it.

“There were times arriving for games that I’d be coming from work and parking the Coke van up next to a fancy team bus from Partizan or Copenhagen or whoever. That would always be a bit of a reality check.

“It’s funny now because on LinkedIn, I’d have my work anniversary pop up, and Michael would always be on to message me saying, ‘Don’t tell me you’re still driving that shitty Coca Cola van’,” Flynn laughs.

I did have Michael’s number but I think he blocked me because I’d always sing rebel songs down the phone, so I hear from him on LinkedIn instead.”

It was that kind of humour, as well as work ethic, which made Flynn a valuable member of the squad. Even as he became a peripheral figure O’Neill gave him the chance to stay involved, but he felt it was time to cut ties.

“In fairness he said I could be a part of it and travel to the games, but that I would be in the stand and would take injuries to make a squad. I could have stayed for just the home games but I didn’t want to be in and out.

“One regret is that I never told the lads. Michael understood my reasons but I just kind of left. I watched the game on telly at home because I didn’t to be turning up at Tallaght and people asking why I wasn’t involved.

“Mentally it was tough, I suppose, maybe I felt a bit embarrassed, so I just stayed away as it was more comfortable that way.”

Belgrade is where everything changed for Rovers.

This was a club that had almost vanished because of financial problems during the previous decade, so with a new member-elected board in place and a partnership with South Dublin County Council finally offering a home at Tallaght Stadium in 2009, stability was crucial.

pat-sullivan-celebrates-after-the-game Aleksandar Djorovic / INPHO Pat Sullivan is held aloft in celebration after qualifying. Aleksandar Djorovic / INPHO / INPHO

The appointment of the shrewd O’Neill put them on the kind of fast track to glory that no one could have envisaged.

It is why the squad were still not on full-time, 52-week contracts, and why one of the first talking points when Pat Sullivan and Stephen O’Donnell scored those famous goals against Partizan was about what it meant for their contracts, as they were due to finish at the end of the domestic season.

So as well as offering a place in history, in black and white terms it also meant not having to go on the dole right before Christmas as the campaign stretched into the middle of December.

“The big talk was about what happened next for us,” captain Stephen Rice remembers.

“We didn’t actually know how many more games we would have and when they would be. When we realised we’d be playing until December, it was brilliant because it meant we would get longer on our deals to cover us.

“That was the reality of the situation. And it was great for us too because a lot of us in the squad were of an age, around mid to late 20s, where we felt we would never have had the opportunity to play at that level again after being in England when we were kids.

I certainly felt it had gone, to play in big stadiums, full houses. I would say every player in Ireland wanted to be on that pitch in Belgrade when we got through because it was a moment that showed everyone it could be done.

“For so long it was a case of nearly, nearly, nearly. But as a club and a league we still probably weren’t ready to do it.”

Ronan Finn is a link between 2011 and today.

Now captain, the Dubliner will break the record for most appearances by a League of Ireland player in European competition when he leads Rovers out against Djurgarden for his 55th game in various Uefa competitions.

He was also a key part of Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk side that followed Rovers’ lead by reaching the Europa League in 2016, and despite an honours list that counts five Premier Division titles and two FAI Cups, that night in Belgrade remains the pinnacle of pure joy.

ronan-finn Morgan Treacy / INPHO Ronan Finn in action during the first game at home to Rubin Kazan. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“Because of the unknown and everything around it, it’s the standalone moment for me,” he says. “Everything fell for us, we dug it out and when the game was there for us, we were able to take it. It was one of those nights in football that are just so, so rare. It was magical. We had hope going there but that was it.

“It’s funny, during the first lockdown I think it was, the game was being shown again on TV. Michael [O'Neill] heard about it and text me that it was on so we were watching it together texting during it.”

That victory also led to the kind of post-match celebrations that might not quite be replicated today, first on a floating nightclub on a nearby river followed by a tennis match at dawn.

“We were out all night,” Finn continues. “Me and Enda Stevens were in taxi coming back with a couple more at about 6am. It broke down so we had to push it back to the hotel.

soccer-uefa-europa-league-group-a-tottenham-hotspur-v-shamrock-rovers-white-hart-lane Rovers fans celebrate Stephen Rice's goal at White Hart Lane.

“When we got there, me and Enda rocked up to reception and asked for the tennis rackets so we could play a match on the court. Twiggy [Gary Twigg] doesn’t drink but he was in reception too so he asked to get involved and play too.

“I like my tennis and would have roomed with Enda back then and we were quite competitive. Me and Enda probably couldn’t see straight playing so Twiggy probably won. It’s stuff like that which lives in the memory and it came from that moment that no one really expected.”

The same went for those in charge, with general manager club secretary Noel Byrne explaining how qualification was so far from their thoughts that they had ignored all correspondence from Uefa prior to the play-off about ensuring travel and accommodation plans were in place for the group stage draw the following morning in Monaco.

“We just genuinely didn’t think we would be there, but we got through and won the effing thing!” he laughs. “Partizan very generously helped me and [chairman] Jonathan Roche secure flights. We flew to Munich at 5.30 the morning after the game. We were delayed for five or six hours there and we had to undo some of the damage with Uefa.

ronan-finn-celebrates-scoring-the-first-goal-with-rory-gaffney Ryan Byrne / INPHO Now captain, Finn celebrates scoring in the first round of the Champions League qualifiers earlier this summer. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“We got on to them to make amends, we asked if they could book us a room and if we could have tickets for the Super Cup final that was happening that night. We were able to straighten it all out and when we got to Nice there was a car waiting for us.

“The delay in Munich meant we missed the draw taking place so when we arrived through the doors we were handed the sheet with the teams who we got. Then it was into the workshop that follows.

“The opening comment from the guy officiating it was about how unfortunately there was one club missing – Shamrock Rovers. I had to gingerly put my hand up and say, ‘No, we made it, we’re here.’ So yeah, that was all a bit higgeldy piggeldy.”

The dramatic nature of events in Belgrade may have caught them off guard but the Rovers hierarchy quickly clicked into gear.

Temporary seating that had been erected behind the south end goal for the culmination of the 2011 league campaign was allowed to remain in place for the Europa League campaign, as they worked with UEFA to maintain Tallaght as their base rather than move to the recently-developed Lansdowne Road.

There were also some nice touches for the official pre-match engagements, with the Tottenham hierarchy appreciating the less formal setting of Johnny Foxes pub when they arrived to Dublin at the end of the campaign – one which saw emerging youngster Harry Kane score his first goal for the club in a 4-0 win.

Rovers might not have managed to put a point on the board in a group that contained Rubin Kazan, PAOK Salonika and Spurs, but just being capable of earning a place alongside them was an achievement worthy of celebration for how it helped change the focus for some in Irish football.

jonathan-roche Aleksandar Djorovic / INPHO Noel Byrne (centre) with chairman Jonathan Roche (right) and board member Mark Lynch. Aleksandar Djorovic / INPHO / INPHO

And there were also moments to savour along the way. Rice’s goal to give them the lead at White Hart Lane provided a fleeting moment of belief in the truly incredible.

“For some people it would be the first thing they would bring up with you,” Rice, now part of Stephen Kenny’s coaching staff with Ireland, explains.

And that’s nice, it’s not like it’s every week. Memories pop up on social media or whatever and that’s nice. I’ve been back in the new White Hart Lane a few times and it’s a fair bit different. I look at that place now and think it would be nice to play and score there.

“But what stands out most about that time is just the group of players, the personalities we had. Michael [O’Neill] built it and there was no lazy passengers. It was all about the collective and if you didn’t work hard, it was not the environment for you.”

Sheppard, similarly, prefers not to reflect on his header away to POAK as the standout moment, but simply being trusted to play by O’Neill in the absence of top scorer Twigg.

“You wanted to work hard and do what Michael wanted because he was that kind of manager. You wanted to do whatever he asked and when he picked you, it did feel as if it meant more, because he had that belief in you.

karl-sheppard-scores Vasilis Ververidis / INPHO Karl Sheppard scores against PAOK. Vasilis Ververidis / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s only a little thing but I remember when I was playing wide and struggling with my crossing. He took me out once for 30 minutes and broke down a few things very simply. He gave that confidence to everyone.”

It is easy to say Rovers’ achievements helped bring an immediate sea change to standards and expectations in the League of Ireland, but it is not the case.

O’Neill’s own contract situation with the club cast somewhat of a shadow over proceedings and in the week of the final game at home to Spurs – his 155th in charge – it was confirmed that he would be departing, with an interview for the Northern Ireland job lined up.

michael-oneill-and-harry-redknapp James Crombie / INPHO Michael O'Neill (left) and Harry Redknapp on the touchline. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

He addressed the fans on the pitch at full-time and, with microphone in hand, explained: “I’m not the kind that’s going to break down. This club is about supporters and the members. Nights like this are to be enjoyed, but it’s hard to reward them with results.

“At the end of the day I’m leaving. The board have a decision about the direction the club will go.”

It’s a situation that remains raw for those still involved to this day.

But this is a very different Shamrock Rovers, and the sense now is that the European adventure they are about to embark on will not be a once-in-a-decade experience.

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