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Dublin: 3 °C Wednesday 11 December, 2019

'We have a chance to be part of history... There is no point trying to hide from it'

Stephen Bradley has urged his Shamrock Rovers players to embrace the big occasion today.

Stephen Bradley is hoping to guide Shamrock Rovers to their first FAI Cup success since 1987.
Stephen Bradley is hoping to guide Shamrock Rovers to their first FAI Cup success since 1987.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

HISTORY BECKONS FOR Stephen Bradley and Shamrock Rovers.

The Hoops are aiming to win the FAI Cup today for the first time since beating Dundalk 3-0 in the 1987 final.

The majority of their current squad weren’t even born when that famous triumph from the ‘four-in-a-row’ team took place 32 years ago.

Yet Bradley says this much-discussed drought should not be treated as a burden by his players.

“You have to embrace that,” he says. “There is no point trying to hide from that or pretend it’s not there. It is there. We have a chance to be part of the great history of this club now and we have to embrace that and understand what it means to the club and the fans. There is no point trying to hide from it.”

They have lost three finals since Dermot Keely’s side lifted the cup. Bradley was in the team the last time Rovers were part of the big occasion in 2010. It did not go well. After a scoreless draw, a remarkable shootout saw six penalties missed, with Sligo prevailing 2-0 ultimately. To make matters worse, the current Rovers boss was sent off after picking up a second booking in extra time.

Even Michael O’Neill, the acclaimed manager who won two league titles in three years at the Hoops, could not end their cup hoodoo.

I only spoke to Michael about this last week, we never really spoke about [the trophy drought] again and we just prepared for the game as best we could,” Bradley recalls. “We probably did a bit too much leading up to the game, to be honest with you. We were flat that day against Sligo as a team, but no, we didn’t really get into the history of the cup, but we didn’t hide from it either.”

Bradley still speaks to current Norther Ireland boss O’Neill “on a regular basis”.

He adds: “People in the game that I respect, people’s opinions, you would always pick their brains on a lot of different issues.”

And while Rovers have not competed in the cup final since then, until now, Dundalk will appear in the season’s climactic event for the fifth year running, having won two and lost two in previous years against Cork.

Bradley, however, plays down any suggestions that Dundalk’s superior big-game experience could be a significant factor in determining the outcome today.

“We have six full internationals in the squad that have played big games throughout the years, so I don’t think any of that will come into it. They have the experience as a group of playing here the last four years. We have Jack [Bryne], Graham [Burke] and Aaron [McEneff] and they have [Patrick] McEleney, [Michael] Duffy, there are match winners all over the pitch. We just have to bring our identity to the game and hopefully that is enough to win.

“They have pace and we like to control games, so the big pitch will definitely suit both teams.”

Source: retroloi/YouTube

And might this big pitch suit a creative player like Jack Byrne in particular, with the midfielder having thrived at the Aviva back in September amid his eye-catching Ireland debut against Bulgaria?

“He would get spaces available anywhere, Jack. Will there be space available probably more often here? Maybe, yeah. But Jack is so clever and his football IQ is that high he would get space in small pitches, big pitches. He understands the game and he knows where the angles are and where the spaces are. I’m sure he will get space [today].”

The recruitment of players such as Byrne has helped Rovers improve in recent times. They finished second behind Dundalk this season, picking up a total of 75 points — 13 more than they managed in 2018.

Bradley acknowledges though that winning a trophy is “the next step,” while it is only when they start regularly appearing in finals and challenging for the league that they can warrant the level of respect that is reserved for Dundalk — the title winners in five of the past six seasons.

We’ve wanted, since we’ve come in, to build a team that can go and challenge and win things and I think we’re very close to having that team. We have a chance to start [today], so why not?

“I think, as a group, they are brave the way they try to play football. It takes courage and bravery to do that and you don’t get that recognition unless you are successful. Dundalk have been the best team in the country for quite a number of years and have backed it up by winning trophies. 

“We know they’re a top side, but we’re a top side as well. If we bring what we brought all year, we’ve shown on any day, we’re more than a match for anyone.”

One of the reasons Dundalk are considered favourites for the game is their excellent recent record against Rovers. The Lilywhites won three and drew one of their 2019 league meetings, including a 3-2 victory at Oriel Park in September that secured the title. 

Nonetheless, Bradley believes the results have not fully reflected how these encounters have panned out.

I think if you watch our last six games against Dundalk, really watch them, without the emotion, you’d be really happy with our performances.

“In games, there are small margins. If you remember the game in Tallaght, there was a big, big decision to be made and it went against us and things like that can swing against you.

“If you watch the games and really analyse them, we’ve been really really good in them games, but we’ve got to win them. They’ve come out on top in some of them. Hopefully we can bring that same level of performance, but obviously the result as well at the end of it [today].”

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Paul Fennessy

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