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Ryan Kilbane looks back at a balmy summer evening in South Dublin, when the world’s most expensive player Cristiano Ronaldo made his debut for Real Madrid.
The 2018/19 season is sure to be looked back on with great frustration by those at Real Madrid; problems on the pitch combined with uncertainty off it. The club slumped to a below par 3rd in La Liga and was at the centre of a managerial merry-go-round which saw Julen Lopetegui brought in to replace Zinedine Zidane only for Zidane himself to be at the helm again by the end of the season. For the first time in 3 years they hadn’t won the Champions league and to add insult to injury Cristiano Ronaldo was sold to Juventus without an obvious replacement.
At the very top level there is no time for sentiment and the rebuilding process has already begun this summer with the signings of Eden Hazard, Ferland Mendy and Luka Jovic confirmed in a bid to reclaim the mantle as Europe’s top dog.
The ‘Ronaldo’ Madrid by winning four of the last six Champions League’s will have to go down as one of the greatest teams of all time. Ten years ago this summer that great side was starting to be assembled and just like this year there was an air of change about.
Real had parted ways with Dutch quartet Arjen Robben, Ruud van Nistelrooy ,Wesley Sneijder and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar along with World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro. Their replacements would go on to be the core of Madrid’s next great team. Xabi Alonso, Kaka and Karim Benzema all joined with great reputations but the marquee signing was Cristiano Ronaldo’s world record arrival from Manchester United.
Hazard et al are due to play their first pre season friendly on the 21st of July against Bayern Munich in Housten’s 72,000-seater NRG Stadium but for the class of 2009 exactly 10 years to the day the venue was a bit more modest, Dublin, and to be more precise, Tallaght. The home of Shamrock Rovers, Ireland’s most successful club
The lead up to the game was exciting but slightly odd. It wasn’t pre-social media but it was in its early days so it’s the last time that I can remember a rumour starting, growing legs and not being able to confirm or deny it within a matter of clicks. Madrid where training in the Carton House hotel, a luxury facility just outside Dublin and after a few days word began to filter out that they might need a game.
Platinum One, the organisers of the match, had contacts at Shamrock Rovers and so they were to be the lucky recipients. Naturally enough the next step was a scramble for tickets. At the time Tallaght stadium held just over 3000 people, which was never going to be enough. Thankfully word got around that there was going to be temporary seating put in to bring the capacity up to 10900, which eased the panic.
Once it was confirmed, the media build-up began. The pieces varied with customary niceties from Madrid players saying how it would be a ‘tough test’ to Rovers defender Pat Flynn regaling the papers on how he wanted to leave the stadium with Ronaldo’s blood on his boots, a feat which he nearly achieved with a crunching first half tackle. Rovers’ manager Michael O’Neill even joked about how conveniently not one player in training that week had been suffering with a knock or strain.
The game itself was a good contest. Madrid had gone with a strong starting line-up which included Ronaldo, Marcelo, Raul and Pepe. Their bench too was naturally full of quality and they called on the likes of Benzema, Van der Vaart and Sneijder in the second half. Rovers in contrast were actually under strength. As they were in the middle of the domestic season, O’Neill decided to rest one or two starters and share the minutes around with some fringe players and triallists.
The League of Ireland side battled admirably and had a Sean O’Connor shot flash across the goal in the 9th minute. Real although never at full tilt were comfortably in control. As the game went on the longer it stayed 0-0 the more the crowd got hopeful. The 10,000 plus in attendance were not all Shamrock Rovers fans but the ones making the noise certainly were. Chants of “We’re only here to see the Rovers” and “Who are ya” rang out around Tallaght, while the other half were just happy to come and see the superstars from Spain.
Rovers had a couple of chances in the second half including a header that was cleared off the line and Dessie Baker fluffing a one on one from a good position but finally the pressure told and Madrid claimed the winner through 21-year-old debutant Karim Benzema in the 86th minute. The first of many the French man would go on to score for Los Blancos.
It eventually ended 1-0. There were good spirits all round, Madrid got a good work out and the Dublin public got to gorge on some of the best players in the world. Everyone left happy even the diehard Rovers fans who would tell you that they were more focused on the league game on Friday.
Although it falls into the category of ‘glamour friendly’ retrospectively it feels different to when ‘generic big European club’ XI rolls into town and you get to play against a team of kids. Real had just smashed the world transfer record and were building the nucleus of what would go on to be their next great team.
Meanwhile Rovers were at the start of their own upward trajectory, after spending 22 years in the wilderness without a permanent ground they eventually moved into Tallaght at the beginning of 2009 . Since then the club has gone from strength to strength. Michael O’Neill guided them to back-to-back league titles in 2010 and 2011 and Rovers became the first League of Ireland team to qualify for the Europa League group stages, having been defeated by Juventus the year previous. The titles have dried up in recent times but they are continuing to grow off the pitch with the development of their academy and are now the main challengers to knock Dundalk off their perch.
A lot has happened in the last decade and both clubs are now building for the next 10 years but they can look back to that balmy July night in South Dublin as a bookmark of a new chapter, Madrid kicking off their next Galactico era and Rovers christening theirs in Tallaght.