Featured: Hoop Dreams, Have Shamrock Rovers Built on Europa Breakthrough?

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From Póg Mo Goal Magazine, Issue 3. Shamrock Rovers’ breakthrough as the first Irish team to qualify for the group stages of a major European competition was supposed to herald an era of domestic domination. However it hasn’t worked out that way, writes Macdara Ferris.

For Shamrock Rovers,  2016 marks a number  of anniversaries in their  recent history. This year it’s  30 years since the club went into its final season in their spiritual home of Milltown. The controversial sale of Glenmalure Park by the owners left the Hoops without a permanent home of their own for decades as they moved from ground to ground – even playing a home game in Cork. Ten years ago Rovers were renting off their rivals and were playing in the First Division having been relegated from the top flight of the League of Ireland for the first time ever. Their only success since leaving Milltown by that time was a solitary league title won in 1994 during a relatively stable six-year spell for the club playing in the RDS.

So it really is remarkable that 2016 also marks a more recent and momentous anniversary – five years since Rovers’ incredible 2011 season. That was the amazing year when the Hoops defended their league title, won the Setanta Sports (All Ireland) Cup and most significantly qualified for the Europa League, the  first Irish club side ever to reach the group stages of a UEFA competition.  By 2011 the Hoops were playing in front of sell-out crowds in their new home of Tallaght, winning back-to-back league titles; an incredible achievement for a club that had come through financial meltdown in 2005 to become a supporters-owned entity. The 400 Club group, along with Australian-based Shamrock Rovers fan Ray Wilson, had put €500,000 into the club to save it during a High Court Examinership process when Rovers sailed close  to going out of business.

The board, voted in by the supporters, put the structures in place to get back to the top of Irish football with the team securing promotion to return to top flight football at the first attempt in 2006. By the end of that year Rovers were forced to take on the might of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in a battle over Tallaght Stadium. Local GAA club Thomas Davis, backed by the hierarchy, had gone to the High Court to gain access to the stadium as they objected to South Dublin County Council’s plans to finish the venue with Rovers as the anchor tenant. The GAA ultimately lost that court battle, allowing the council to complete the stadium as planned with Rovers finally playing their first game in Tallaght in March 2009 – 13 years after the stadium plan was  first mooted .

Within three years, major trophies had returned in quantities not seen since  the days of Milltown when the club had won four league titles in a row in the  final years playing in Glenmalure Park.  In 2011 the bank coffers were swelled  by a Europa League qualification windfall. It seemed like Ireland’s most successful side were on the cusp of dominating Irish football once again. However it hasn’t turned out that way for the Hoops. By the end of 2011, manager Michael O’Neill was gone from Rovers and the club haven’t challenged for a league title since. O’Neill has proved himself on the international stage since then, qualifying Northern Ireland for France 2016 – their first major tournament qualification in 30 years and the first ever appearance at the Euros. So how did Rovers seemingly squander the opportunity that the miracle season five years ago brought and what is the club doing now to ensure major trophy success in Tallaght in both the short and the long term?

“Seeing Michael O’Neill at the top table of international football is a reminder of the heady days for the Hoops fans of 2011 when he brought Rovers to European competition”

In the Autumn of that year the club was closing in on the league title – the League of Ireland season running as it does from March to October – whilst they were also in the middle of an exhilarating Europa League campaign. The Hoops had acquitted themselves excellently against Spurs  at White Hart Lane, taking a second-half lead before eventually losing 3-1.

They travelled to Greece, when both countries were in the depths of an economic crisis, and were unlucky  to lose 2-1 to PAOK. Within days of their return they would retain their domestic title in dramatic fashion when Michael O’Neill brought on Dean Kelly late in the game away to UCD. Deep in stoppage time with a deft finish Kelly scored to win the game and secure a 17th league title for the Hoops – Rovers remain the most successful ever League of Ireland club with 17 championships wins and 24 FAI Cups. That night Rovers fans clambered onto the pitch in celebration and sung not just about winning two-in-a-row but emulating the four-in-a-row side. Destiny awaited the Hoops it seemed but that night turned out to be ‘Peak Rovers’.

Michael O’Neill would manage Rovers  in only one more league game following that title win in Belfield and the Hoops haven’t gotten nearer than nine points off the champions in the final league table since that time. It was a fractious departure, with O’Neill only confirming on the eve of their final Europa League group game in December 2011 that  he would leave the club. By then both  he and the board seemed quite happy  to see the back of each other. The seeds of a lack of high end success for Shamrock Rovers in the following seasons were sown with O’Neill’s late departure. Rovers had plucked the Northern Irishman from the relative obscurity of the Scottish Second Division for their inaugural season in Tallaght in 2009. Having gambled so successfully with that appointment, for his successor Rovers went with the tried and tested, headhunting Stephen Kenny from Derry City and handing him a three  year contract.

However by the time he was appointed in Christmas week of 2011, much of the transfer business in the league, which had finished two months previously, had been done, limiting how Kenny could shape his squad. The lack of an experienced goalkeeper would haunt the short Kenny ‘era’. There is no doubt about the Dubliner’s managerial talents, proven both before his time at Rovers, where he won the League of Ireland with Bohemians, and after where he has won back-to-back titles with Dundalk. Kenny is a deep thinker about the game but the soft spoken manager, almost ponderous in his manner at times, couldn’t galvanise a Rovers squad that felt they had been there and done it. Kenny had been most successful when he gathered a squad around him, instilling a belief that they could take on and win against any team. A series of heavy away league defeats (5-1 to St. Patrick’s Athletic, 3-0 to Sligo Rovers and 4-0 to fierce rivals Bohemians) gave opponents the view that Rovers were a brittle team and put Kenny under real pressure by the time Europe came around.

Following that incredible Europa League run in 2011, the following  season the manager presided over   an embarrassingly early exit from Europe at the hands of Ekranas from Lithuania. Another Dublin derby defeat against Bohs in September meant Kenny had sat in the home dugout in Tallaght for the last time, with the resulting monetary consequences for Rovers  that comes when a manager leaves  his position early. The Hoops would suffer further financial woes by failing  to qualify for Europe by season’s end.

With their next permanent appointment in 2013, Rovers reverted to an unproven manager but one with an excellent reputation as a coach. Trevor Croly,  who was number two to Michael O’Neill in Tallaght until June 2011, won three trophies in his first season with the Hoops. However that success was  in reality more a reflection of the size and strength of the squad in Tallaght. In those competitions the opposition often brought less experienced players including youth team members into the team whereas the analytical Croly could bring many established players into his starting XI as he rotated across all competitions. Croly also didn’t have the benefit of talismanic Gary Twigg who had left in 2012 following a spell at the club where he was the league’s top scorer in three of the four previous seasons. While Croly secured that trio  of trophies – dubbed the treble minor – the Setanta Sports Cup, EA Sports (League) Cup and the Leinster Senior Cup, the Hoops crucially missed out  on Europe. They finished in fifth place 19 points behind St. Pat’s but, with  no European qualification, significantly  it was a second season missing out on the six figure bonus that comes with entry into the continental competitions.

By the time that season was over, Croly was gone and Pat Fenlon was in charge. The appointment of ‘Nutsy’, a Rovers fan who had played for the club for one season in 1997, brought a coach with a CV as good as any of the very best League of Ireland managers. His managerial palmarès include five league titles. Fenlon steadied the Shamrock Rovers ship in 2014, securing European qualification, and in 2015 oversaw  a moderately successful season guiding the Hoops through one round in Europe and achieved third in the table  – their best league finish since 2011. However, by the summer of 2016, the Dubliner also fell foul of the board and was dismissed.

When Stephen O’Donnell stood over the penalty spot in Belgrade in August 2011 deep into injury time in the Europa League play-off against Partizan,  the prize for scoring was a ticket for Shamrock Rovers into the group stages. O’Donnell was the coolest man on  a sultry night in Serbia as he slotted  it home sending the small pocket  of 43 Rovers fans in the stadium  into delirium. The door to the Europa League had been opened.

That penalty alone, following the distribution of the prize money, would eventually earn Rovers over  €1.1 million on top of the €500,000  they had secured  from UEFA in the earlier Champions League qualification stages. Not an inconsiderable sum  for a club whose annual turnover  in 2012 was close to €2.5m. It was  a significant amount of money but  not the game changer that many thought it would be.

In Norway, Rosenborg had used the combination of domestic and European success to dominate their league winning the title 13 times in a row from 1992. The difference was the Norwegian club had made their breakthrough  into the group stages of the Champions League and continually qualified for Europe. In 2012, the prize money for making it to that level was four times  that of the Europa League. The bumper payout of five years ago is now  a distant memory, and only Gary  McCabe remains in the squad from  that play-off win in Belgrade. Missing  out on Europe in 2013 and 2014 had major financial implications.

When in 2005 Rovers came through a High Court examinership process when they were within a judge’s  ruling of going out of business,  it was the 400 Club fan group  and Ray Wilson who put the money  in to save the club. In early 2016 the Rovers board outlined to their members a proposal for Wilson to arrange significant funding for the club for future development of the youth structures – both for facilities and coaching support – for their academy at Roadstone. In 2017, South Dublin County Council, who own the municipal stadium in Tallaght, plan to expand the ground with the construction of a new 2,500 seater north stand. The project, which will cost €0.75m in total, will bring the stadium capacity to 8,500.

If the Hoops are to fill that new north stand in seasons to come, top level success needs to return  to Tallaght. European football in  2016 was short lived – a rather embarrassing first round exit to  RoPS Rovaniemi of Finland – which ultimately resulted in Pat Fenlon’s dismissal. If a title challenge doesn’t materialise, demanding Hoops fans  can only be satisfied by ending their  cup famine. Winning a fabled 25th FAI Cup on the anniversary of their last successful run 30 years ago would be another chapter for the history books.

Macdara Ferris is a Shamrock Rovers fan and co-author of Tallaght Time: Shamrock Rovers 2009 to 2012.  He is a senior reporter with Extratime.ie reporting on Irish football stories from  the domestic and international game.

This article appears in the brand new Issue 3 of the Póg Mo Goal MagazineClick this link to pre-order your copy

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