Rovers bank on Tallaght strategy

SHAMROCK ROVERS expect to find out early next week if they will be able to play their Europa League group games in Tallaght.

Having created history by knocking out Partizan Belgrade on Thursday night, the European dream continued for the Irish champions yesterday when they drew Spurs in the group phase, along with Russian side Rubin Kazan and PAOK Salonica of Greece.

However, the fixture schedule was a little less kind, since Rovers won’t get to host their Premiership opponents until the final round of matches on December 15. But the Hoops do have home advantage in their first game, against Rubin Kazan on September 15, before they travel to London for a meeting with Spurs at White Hart Lane on September 29.

Rovers chairman Jonathan Roche insisted yesterday after the draw in Monaco that the club were committed to playing all their home games at Tallaght Stadium but he also accepted the reality that they might have to be moved to the Aviva Stadium.

For the Hoops to have any hope of hosting their three games in Tallaght, the stadium will have to be upgraded with temporary seating and an extended press box.

“Really, capacity is the big issue, so we are going to try to do our best,” said Roche. “8,500 is the minimum requirement but we’d be looking to put in four thousand extra seats to bring it up to ten thousand. But we’ll have to get permission from UEFA to do that. And we’d hope to find out by Monday or Tuesday.”

Rovers will also be checking to see if they can alternate between home venues but, in the interests of a level playing field for all their opponents, that option seems unlikely.

Thursday’s win in Belgrade means the club are guaranteed a €1m in UEFA participation fees, comprising €640,000 for qualifying for the group stage and a further €60,000 for each of the six games they will play. But there are even greater riches in store should the club manage to do well in the group: every victory earns an extra €120,000 and every draw €60,000. And that’s before the addition of tv rights, gate receipts and, even in the current recession, an expected boost in advertising and sponsorship revenue.

All kinds of important negotiations now ensue, not least with regard to sorting out player contracts which are due to terminate with the closure of the domestic season in November. The issue is a particularly sensitive one in Irish football because of the recent threat by St Pat’s Athletic to boycott a European game in a row over bonus payments and compensation.

But Rovers’ general manager Noel Byrne isn’t anticipating problems. “I’d imagine that sort of conversation will have to happen but we’d be confident what happened with Pat’s won’t happen with us,” he said, adding with smile, “they all owe me for jerseys anyway because they keep giving them away.”

But the real significance of Rovers’ achievement is a footballing one. Manager Michael O’Neill hailed Thursday’s performance and result as “the most magnificent night of my career and for everyone connected with the club.”

And Belgrade goal heroes Pat Sullivan and Stephen O’Donnell were almost lost for words as they tried to do justice to the night. Said Sullivan of his stunning volley which levelled the tie: “I honestly don’t know what happened. I saw it coming out of the sky and I said to myself ‘I’m not taking a touch on this, I’m just going to smack it. If it goes over the bar, it goes over the bar, we get back into our shape and play on.’ But for it to go in! It’s once in a lifetime. I said it to the gaffer that I haven’t hit one like that since I was 13 or 14. It’s unbelievable.”

And ice-cool penalty hero O’Donnell did his best to put his club’s achievement into context: “This is the breakthrough. This is phenomenal. It hasn’t sunk in. The first team to make it. Hopefully this carries the league along and gives it hope.”

Rovers will have to quickly get back down to earth for Monday’s FAI Cup game in Tallaght against UCD. Before that, Longford Town host Bohemians (7.30) and Sligo are home to Monaghan (7.45) today.

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