Irish football’s finest hour? Regardless of what ensues; whether Shamrock Rovers are beaten out the gate in each of their Europa League games, they have put the League of Ireland on the map. Paradoxically, the attention and goodwill flowing towards Rovers from the wider football world may be the route by which the Republic’s domestic game gains respect at home.
These are good days for the League of Ireland after a torrent of bad. Shamrock Rover’s gate-crashing of the group stages, the first in the history of the Irish game, has given the game here a legitimacy that no amount of cajoling by its loyal followers upon the sleeping football fan in Ireland could match.
On another day, one could argue whether an Irish club side reaching the group stages of a European competition eclipses anything achieved by the pioneering steps of Jack Charlton’s national side.
For decades, the slow decline of the game in Ireland, since its heyday of the 50 and 60s, prompted disparaging comments from all sections of the game, from the so -called ‘barstoolers’ who couldn’t give nearby clubs the time of day, all the way up to pundits like Eamon Dunphy and Johnny Giles.
The doyens of Montrose, who famously tried to turn Shamrock Rovers into a domestic powerhouse in the 1970s and failed, have been conspicuous by their silence on the strides made by League of Ireland clubs in Europe in recent seasons.
On the other hand, the heartfelt affection expressed by Liam Brady on his recent appearances on RTE for Rover’s European exploits raised the awareness that the club known as the Manchester United of Ireland were a little bit special.
Rovers got over the gain-line but they were not the first to knock on the door. Shelbourne, Bohemians, and Drogheda United all came close to making the lucrative European breakthrough. Yet, no one can deny that the name Shamrock Rovers has always held a certain mythical quality in Irish sport. Despite the indifference shown by many to the game here, Rovers were always a brand name. They always showed the potential to capture the imagination of the wider public because the name is associated with history, success, and celebrity. Rovers were the heroes to people like Giles, Dunphy, and Brady growing up in Dublin.
To think, that barely a decade ago, the club faced extinction only to be saved by their own supporters; the magic associated with the real Hoops has only been amplified.
While others in Irish football sacrificed themselves at the altar of the big-buck gamble, like Shelbourne pledging their future on the hope of the European breakthrough only to disintegrate almost into oblivion, Rovers went about building themselves up as a club owned by the fans, for the fans, just like the world’s great institutions such as Real Madrid and Barcelona.
And now, the Rovers of Ireland have taken their first steps into the European limelight onto the same footballing stage as those illustrious names. Irish football has hit the big time.