Shamrock Rovers Ready for Europa League

The New York Times: Goal, 14/09/2011

On a dramatic night in Belgrade in August, Stephen O’Donnell’s penalty kick in the 113th minute of extra time secured for Shamrock Rovers, champions of Ireland, a place in the group stages of Europe’s second tier soccer competition, the Europa League, completing a 3-2 aggregate victory over Serbia’s Partizan Belgrade.

O’Donnell’s late strike, and Pat Sullivan’s stunning 30-yard volley earlier in the game, also sealed Rovers place in the history books, as the first Irish team to reach the group stage of a European competition.

On Thursday night, Shamrock Rovers will welcome Russia’s Rubin Kazan to Tallaght in south Dublin, the hometown of Los Angeles Galaxy’s Robbie Keane. One of Keane’s former teams, Tottenham Hotspur — with stars like Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart — is also in the group, along with PAOK Salonika of Greece.

Rovers’ mere presence is a staggering achievement for a team made up in part of amateurs — midfielder Paddy Kavanagh is an electrician, and defender Pat Flynn is a product rep for Coca Cola — competing in a league where the average yearly salary is less than some of their upcoming opponents make in a week. According to manager Michael O’Neill, Rovers’ entire squad was put together for €600,000 (about $820,000). That’s less than Bale makes in two months.

Irish league soccer has a limited appeal in Ireland, where fans are far more likely to support a team from the glamorous Premier League across the Irish Sea, or Glasgow Celtic in Scotland. The loyal few that attend matches are regularly joined by scouts from English and Scottish clubs, who snap up the most promising youngsters.

Rovers’ success is all the more remarkable given that as recently as a decade ago the club was relegated to the Irish second division, without a home stadium and staring into the financial abyss. It took a consortium of 400 local supporters, called the 400 Club, to drag Rovers back from the brink. They staged a takeover and sorted out years of financial mismanagement.

In 2009, Real Madrid came to Dublin to celebrate the construction of Rovers’ new local council-owned stadium; a young Portuguese winger named Cristiano Ronaldo made his debut for Madrid that day. Renewed financial stability off the field quickly translated into success on it, and last year the Hoops won their record 16th league championship.

For the Rovers chairman Jonathan Roche, one of the 400 fans who rescued the club when it was at its lowest ebb, the upcoming Europa League campaign is a chance, at long last, to showcase the best of Irish league soccer.

“It means a massive amount to the club, we’re top of the news at the moment,” he said. “It’s not only important for the club but for the league as well, for Irish football. It exposes us to a worldwide audience.”

Progress beyond the group stage will most likely be beyond them, although stranger things have happened in soccer. Whatever the results, Shamrock Rovers look set to win a host of new fans, both at home and abroad.

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