John Fallon: Past provides lessons for Rovers to heed 

Stephen Bradley's side are on the cusp of another milestone in Europe.
John Fallon: Past provides lessons for Rovers to heed 

HOOP DREAMS: Shamrock Rovers' manager Stephen Bradley. INPHO/Evan Treacy

Never has the gorging of M&Ms tasted so sweet.

Malta and Macedonia, the nationalities of the two sides Shamrock Rovers overcame to secure group stages of European competition, are countries Irish teams should have the measure of to be taken seriously.

Last year's pool phases in Uefa's three divisions of the Champions, Europa, and Conference League featured 96 teams.

Among those were representatives from Kazakhstan, Gibraltar, Armenia, and the Estonian champions Flora Tallinn, slayers of Shamrock Rovers. Moldovans Sheriff reached the top table of the Champions League, famously winning at the Bernabéu against eventual victors Real Madrid.

That a League of Ireland side failed to make the cut within an expanded window of slots was a leveller for anyone with delusions of trumpeting the domestic product's relative standing.

Rovers have done this summer what was expected of a side that began the champions' path with a seeded draw. All that remains to be decided is which of the elite's sister competitions they end up having the six group matches in between September and November. Defeat to Ferencvaros in the Europa playoff, the first leg taking place on Thursday in Hungary, will trigger the Conference League consolation.

What will define their campaign is longevity which makes passing the threshold into the group stages an expectation, rather than an aspiration.

None of the three previous teams to hit the jackpot by sharing Europa League groups with superior opposition were able to sustain it.

Reasons explained their inability to do so and we recount the flaws that this Rovers generation will seek to avoid for them to last the distance beyond this tilt.

2011: Shamrock Rovers

The trailblazers sealed their passage into the pool by shocking Partizan Belgrade; Stephen O'Donnell converting an extra-time penalty to seal a 2-1 win at the raucous Red Star Stadium.

Pitted against PAOK, Rubin Kazan and Tottenham Hotspur in the group, the closest they came to bolstering their €1m of prize-money with bonus cash was away to the Greek side. They were level at 1-1 until PAOK struck midway through the second half.

The visit of Tottenham to Tallaght was the tale of two Harrys – manager Redknapp and a striker making his way in the game, Kane. The 18-year-old came off the bench to notch his first Spurs goal in a 4-0 win, the last of 19 concessions for the group phase newcomers.

High point: When Stephen Rice turned in a shot from distance against Spurs, Rovers were well positioned to cause an upset at White Hart Lane. That breakthrough early in the second half sent the visiting section into raptures but it was short-lived, for the hosts responded with three goals.

Aftermath: Michael O'Neill, despite reviving Rovers as the dominant force of Irish football, signalled his intention to quit on the eve of the final Europa game. At the heart of his grievance was what he considered the limited ambition of the Rovers' board, infamously claiming two years later that Rubin Kazan had a larger budget for taxis than his allowance for player wages.

2016: Dundalk

Stephen Kenny's side had been gradually getting closer to the Holy Grail before they guaranteed it. Like Rovers, they needed to take a scalp and theirs came in the form of steamrolling past Belarusians BATE Borisov in the playoff second leg.

They achieved their success shorn of Richie Towell, their star player of the double-winning season snapped up by Brighton, but others such as Daryl Horgan and Robbie Benson came to the fore.

A first-ever point for an Irish team, extracted in their opener away to AZ Alkmaar, was a precursor to beating Maccabi Tel Aviva, raising hopes of emergence into the knockout phase. It wasn't to be as Dundalk lost their last four games, all by a single goal, twice to a Zenit St Petersburg outfit with Belgian Axel Witsel as their talisman.

High point:  Ciarán Kilduff's winner against Maccabi with 18 minutes left had Dundalk's temporary home of Tallaght Stadium rocking. Arguably, Benson's opener against Zenit was more noteworthy for raising the belief levels of progressing until the Russians struck twice in the final 20 minutes.

AftermathHorgan and Andy Boyle would swiftly depart for Preston and Dundalk struggled the following season, ceding both their league and Cup crowns to Cork City. Kenny would eventually join the exodus, jumping ship in late 2018 to pursue his international ambitions.

2020: Dundalk

The unlikeliest of European journeys began with a Champions League defeat in Slovenia and sacking of manager Vinny Perth.

American owners Peak 6 were only starting to apply their peculiar tricks of the "soccer" trade, resulting in a bout of upheaval underpinned by bizarre incidents of interference from the hierarchy.

The choice of Filippo Giovagnoli was interim manager, parachuted in from America with no senior coaching experience, fed into the pantomime vibe but against the odds he delivered the FAI Cup and, most profitably, a place in the Europa League. They hurdled three rounds to get there, beating sides from Andorra, Moldova and the Faroe Islands along the way to the esteemed company of Arsenal, Molde and Rapid Vienna.

High point: Slim pickings here from a campaign that replicated Rovers for accruing zero points. They led twice in the first three games, against Molde and Rapid Vienna, but folded badly in the rematches before finishing with a flourish. Scoring twice at the Emirates was admirable but their suspect defending was exposed in the 4-2 defeat.

Aftermath: A dysfunctional set-up between the boardroom and dressing-room, moderated by new Director of Football Jim Magilton, was always liable to implode and within five months of their trip to Arsenal, both Giovagnoli and Shane Keegan — promoted to manager to fulfil licensing requirements — had left. The European hangover would last long until Peak6 bowed to pressure by selling up by the end of 2021.

O'Reilly leading the Shelbourne charge in Champions League...

The Fazanerija Stadium in Slovenia has already marked a scene of European joy for an Irish team and Shelbourne's women aim to complete a double on Friday.

It was at Murska Sobota venue three weeks ago that St Patrick's Athletic eliminated NS Mura in the Conference League on penalties. ZNK Pomurje are the local opposition for Irish champions Shelbourne.

Only Peamount United in 2011 and Shels' previous incarnation, Raheny United, three years later have advanced to the last-32 stage.

Undoubtedly, the acquisition of USA international Heather O'Reilly heightens the prospects of the Reds navigating the arduous early rounds.

Departing Dublin Airport yesterday morning, the veteran made a point of contrasting how she's getting to savour the Champions League experience that her fellow 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo isn't – unless he gets his wish of exiting Manchester United.

O'Reilly has showed glimpses of her quality already, yet Shels still face an uphill task to survive the preliminaries. Slovenian sides, like the Serbian outfit Spartak Subotica who knocked Peamount out last season, are better resourced and further ahead in the development of their national league. Twice in the last seven years, Pomurje got to the knockout stage. Should Noel King's side prevail on Friday (4.30pm, Irish time), they're only halfway there. The winner from the other semi between Valur (Iceland) and FC Hayasa (Armenia) will meet in Sunday's final for a last-32 berth.

Irish making their presence felt in Italy 

Of all the Irish storylines from the weekend football action, the most eye-catching was the Serie A debut for Enniscorthy native Festy Ebosele.

Italian clubs aren't historically known for targeting Irish talent so for Udinese to recruit two – they also shelled out €500,000 to St Patrick's Athletic James Abankwah – was notable.

Ebosele resumed where he'd left off for Wayne Rooney's Derby County by going straight into the action, smashing straight into AC Milan's Divock Origi at the San Siro following his introduction and earning a yellow card.

His involvement in a side that also includes former Everton winger Gerard Deulofeu made him just the fourth Irish player to grace the Italian top-flight – and the first since Robbie Keane's brief spell at Inter Milan 22 years ago. The other pair were Paddy Sloan and Liam Brady.

Abankwah is sure to follow him. The stylish defender is two years younger than Ebosele but equally rated by his employers who showed their faith in the 18-year-old with a five-year contract. They host Salernitana on Saturday.

Honourable mentions go to Liam Kerrigan and Aaron Connolly operating in Serie B. Kerrigan was made to wait for his bow by Como as an unused substitute against Cagliari but his fellow westerner featured off the bench for Venezia against Genoa. How the quartet fare on their respective Italian jobs should be fascinating.

Ends

 

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