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McPhail comes out fighting for Rovers as critics over 'B Team' mount

‘The Limerick thing, people keep thinking we jumped in and seen a gap there. We didn’t. We were always going to apply,’ the Hoops’ sporting director insisted.

Stephen McPhail is ready for the new season.
Stephen McPhail is ready for the new season.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

THERE ARE FLECKS of grey infiltrating Stephen McPhail’s beard.

Shamrock Rovers’ sporting director turned 40 just before Christmas so it’s not just life on the coalface of the League of Ireland that has caught up with him.

“Jesus, feels like I’m getting old now,” he sighs.

The last four years have been spent shaping Rovers’ medium-to-long term strategy alongside head coach Stephen Bradley.

“We made a plan and we’re trying to keep that plan in place and not come away from it,” he told The 42 at the launch of the 2020 SSE Airtricity League season earlier today.

“We want to develop players, our own players. It’s difficult but it’s something we want to do, it’s something that a country this size needs to do.

“We need to look after our own and not be sending them to England or any other country. We need to give them the best we can. We always plan to look after the player and their welfare. We’re just trying to develop it.”

None of this is new, it a mission statement which Rovers have dutifully carried out and stayed loyal to as their training/academy base in Roadstone continues to develop. There have been sneers and jeers about talk of ‘the project’ but their reasoning and, so far, execution, has been sound.

Billionaire businessman Dermot Desmond came on board as a 25% shareholder late last year, bringing with it an investment understood to be in the region of €2million at a time when the landscape of football in this country was at its most perilous.

“Loads has gone on the last six months especially. It feels like a fresh start for everyone. It was good to see Niall [Quinn] here today,” McPhail said of the recently-appointed FAI interim deputy chief executive.

stephen-bradley-celebrates-with-graham-burke-after-the-game Rovers head coach Stephen Bradley and forward Graham Burke embrace after winning the FAI Cup last year. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“We had a good chat and people like that who care about the game are important. From my point of view, things on the pitch have been really, really good. We’re developing and growing so hopefully the league will prosper as well.

“That comes from the top now. It’s a massive part to play from the new board, the new people to help clubs. Clubs also need to go out and try and deliver to businesses and businesspeople to sell it as best can that what they are doing is the right thing for kids and developing the country in general. Loads of things needs to happen but we have to have the right structures in place.”

Which brings us the elephant in the room, one McPhail shared with representatives from all 10 Premier Division clubs while a fare degree of farce remains with the second tier.

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Indeed, McPhail was here on behalf of the Rovers first team while Aidan Price – a former Hoops centre back – carried out media duties as the head coach of the newly-established ‘B Team’ which was given the go-ahead play in the First Division this season.

The First Division Alliance group have rallied against the decision, insisting that it “demeans” the competition. There have been threats of boycotting Rovers games or even the unfathomable scenario of a mass withdrawal.

Limerick’s financial woes – its understood there is €25,000 outstanding to management and players from last season – offered Rovers an obvious void to fill but with there was further drama last month when they, too, were allowed apply for a licence after revealing a €500,000 investment plan over the next three years.

There were no representatives from the Munster club in Dublin today and McPhail was adamant they were not trying to make a late play to exploit Limerick’s struggles.

We met with Rudd Dokter, me and Stephen [Bradley], and spoke about our problems because he asked. Over a long period of time, maybe the last two years, we’ve had a question mark between our 19s and the first team. We felt we were losing players to the game and people weren’t playing football anymore when we let them them go,” McPhail says.

“To develop and have clear a pathway we felt we needed something in there. We had no other option. The Limerick thing, people keep thinking we jumped in and seen a gap there. We didn’t. We were always going to do it.

“We were always going to apply and show why, and what, our plan is. That’s all it was. It was not to see a chink in the FAI armour that they on the floor. There was none of that at all. This was a clear plan and something that we felt we needed to get in there.

“We need to move on,” he continued. “There are a number of big countries and smaller countries that had this well before us, where there is a second team developing players. I think we need to come away from all our thinking and try and see the bigger picture. That’s important for the whole country, not just Shamrock Rovers, it’s for everyone.”

ronan-finn Rovers midfielder Ronan Finn at the 2020 league launch. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

McPhail, the former Ireland and Leeds midfielder, has been home in north county Dublin since he signed for Rovers this time six years ago. His playing days were coming to an end and, while he was unable to deliver silverware for the club with his boots still on, last November’s FAI Cup final triumph over Dundalk was a milestone moment.

“It was different, yeah,” he accepts. “I suppose as a player you’re thinking so selfish, it’s all about yourself. The next game, next training. Now, every day I wake up I’m thinking of everyone but myself, making sure everything is OK for everyone else.

“That’s difficult because you take on pressure that is out of your hands, sometimes the organisational stuff, Stephen [Bradley] will be the same.

“At the end of the season, the two of us knew what we had been through during the course of that year so to have something to show for it was special.

“We had that night with our families, the players, the staff, everyone in the club. That was the time to enjoy it and then the next morning we woke up and said ‘this is what we need to do for next season’. We needed to keep moving because football never switches off.”

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