Some enchanted evening

QUALIFICATION for the group stages of the Europa League? One million euro. The emotional reward for the players, staff and supporters of Shamrock Rovers? Priceless.

And not just for folk whose blood runs green and white either — Thursday night was some enchanted evening for everyone associated with League of Ireland football. An 11th-hour deal meant that Setanta Ireland were able to screen live coverage of the game in Belgrade but for all those who couldn’t get to watch it on the box, the web was their link and lifeline to an evening which eventually resolved itself into the most glorious night in the history of Irish club football.

RTÉ were running a live blog on the game and the posts they inserted as the drama unfolded put a wonderfully human face on what it meant to so many people, as the League of Ireland diaspora, scattered around the globe, hung on every fresh update which flashed across their computer screens.

“Bray Wanderers fan getting the text feed in the office in Mexico. Best of luck Rovers.”

“I’m calling out your report to my 97-year-old father. It was his birthday today! He can’t believe what’s happening! Come on Shams!!” (A Sligo fan, I’m guessing!).

“Come on the Hoops! Keeping track of the game from an offshore rig off a Russian Island off the east coast of Russia above Japan.”

“Preparing for Hurricane Irene in Staten Island, New York — give us one last reason to smile Rovers.”

And, boy did they did so just that, Stephen O’Donnell’s ice-cool penalty — surely the most significant single kick of a ball in League of Ireland history — following on from Pat Sullivan’s goal-of-the-season contender, to complete a remarkable comeback against a superior team on their own patch and send Shamrock Rovers rocketing into not just the group stages of the Europa League but what club chairman Jonathan Roche called “a new universe”.

Again, the posts on the live blog caught the huge emotional impact of it for people, old and young who, for all the joy they get out of being part of the rich experience of supporting local football, have always had to live with the awareness that they are regarded as poor relations if not, indeed, outright eccentrics by devotees of the glamour game across the water. But with Celtic among the big names who had fallen where Shamrock Rovers had succeeded, this was a night to shout their local pride from the rooftops. Or, at least, their laptops.

“As a kid from Kildare I dreamed that one day a League of Ireland team might do something great in Europe!! Nothing beats this. Rovers you have made your country proud tonight,” said Paul.

“Just an epic night that will love long in my memory despite the fact that I’m a Drogheda fan who could only get sketchy audio coverage from here in Louth. So proud of that club and this league right now. Can’t wait to tell everyone that Ireland has a team in the Europa League this year!!!!! Fan-bloody-tastic!”, said Fionnan.

And this from John on the other side of the Atlantic: “Sitting at work in a very warm Boston, following your excellent web commentary. This brings me back to all those freezing nights at Turner’s Cross, in a crowd of 1500, and looking for signs of real progress in the domestic game. This is a fantastic achievement and Ireland as a nation should be roaring Rovers on in the group stages!”

Closer to home, my immediate thoughts turned to a guy who, back in the early seventies, I first knew as a fellow young Hoop in what was already then, sadly, a dwindling crowd on the terraces at Milltown.

Unlike me, he remained deeply embedded in the cause in later life, first actively protesting against the sale and demolition of the holy ground, then helping bail the club out in their hour of need and finally working hard to set it on a fresh course in its fine new home in Tallaght. A short time after the final whistle in Belgrade, I sent him a text of congratulations and the following message came back: “Tears. Lots of tears. So proud of what we’ve achieved as a fans’ run club. Always believed and faith is a wonderful thing.”

He wasn’t the only one who had his faith tested during dark days in League of Ireland football. Consider one of the heroes of Belgrade, Rovers skipper Dan Murray. Only two seasons ago, as Cork City imploded, he found himself standing outside the Silversprings Hotel one day, pleading for help from local radio listeners because the driver of the team bus, who was already owed money by the club, was refusing to take the team to Dublin for a game against St Pats until he was paid.

Murray is one of the League’s most solid citizens and it was a pleasure on Thursday to see him playing his part in the greatest good news story that club football here has ever generated. Of course, we shouldn’t get carried away. Rovers’s achievement is unprecedented in Irish football and it might even turn out to be unrepeatable. Certainly, there are clubs in the League of Ireland who are currently still beset by huge problems and no-one should be under any illusion that Rovers’ rising tide will automatically lift all boats. But it will have lifted all hearts.!

So the Hoops go marching on — and now Spurs come marching in. What a story. The only pity is that Philip Greene didn’t live long enough to see it happen.


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