Rory Gaffney believes Shamrock Rovers have come of age in Europe and sees no reason why they can’t grow their continental aspirations further.
The hard running Tuam native scored the opener as Hoops beat North Macedonian side FK Shkupi 2-1 in Skopje on Tuesday night in the second leg of their Europa League third qualifying round tie.
With Graham Burke providing a second sublime assist, Aidomo Emakhu, still just 18, added another goal before the hosts got a late consolation, Rovers winning 5-2 on aggregate.
At a minimum it now means group stage of the Europa Conference League for Stephen Bradley’s side.
Including Rovers’ breakthrough in 2011, it’s the fourth time a League of Ireland side has made the groups in Europe, adding to Dundalk in 2016 and 2020.
Having banked in the region of €1.5 million for their run 11 years ago, Rovers have at least more than doubled that prize money now.
Things could yet get better as it’s Hungarian side Ferencvaros up next in the play-off round of the Europa League, with the first leg in Budapest next Thursday. The prize for making the group stages of UEFA’s second competition starts at €4 million.
“Great achievement,” beamed Gaffney after his fourth goal in Europe helped Rovers through in the sapping heat of the National Arena Todor Proeski.
“I suppose it was a nervy night. Thank God, we were so good in the first half (in the first leg) with the two goals because after both games, I think 5-2 flatters us a bit.
“I don’t think they’re as bad as the scoreline suggests. They’re very dangerous going forward. But I'm really happy to be honest.”
With harsh lessons learned from going out tamely to Flora Tallinn in the play-off round of the Conference League last year, it’s now a much more experienced Rovers team with the maturity that comes with that.
"Yes,” agreed 32-year-old Gaffney. “The manager when he’s gone through video clips, he's pointed out how teams have punished us at times.
“He’s always looking at the bigger picture. He might show a clip from a Finn Harps game that could cost you in Europe.
“He’s been thinking about it and he’s been building this over the last number of years. It’s come this year.”
Progressing without key personnel in Jack Byrne and Roberto Lopes, while Danny Mandroiu had been transferred, has also emphasised the strength in depth of Bradley’s squad.
“If you were saying at the start of the season you’d have qualified for the group stages where Pico was injured, Chris McCann was injured, Danny Mandriou has left, Jack Byrne is coming back from injury, Graham Burke has been injured recently, it shows you the quality that’s in the squad,” said Gaffney.
“Dylan Watts has been brilliant. Aaron Greene has come in. Sean Gannon’s experience. We brought on Sean Kavanagh.
“There is a really good squad there. I wouldn’t know what our best XI is, maybe the manager doesn’t know either.”
While impacting in the group stages in Europe is the goal for Rovers, Gaffney was quick to refocus on big domestic games coming up, starting away to Derry City tomorrow night and then Dundalk at home in between the European legs.
“I don’t want to bang on about clichés. Our full focus is Derry on Friday night. If we don’t win the League we’d be at a huge disadvantage (in Europe) next season.
“We will want to have a go at the group stages. But it’s about winning the League, our bread and butter. My main focus. Sure, we’ll have a go at everything.
“We’ve two huge games, Derry and Dundalk. Get two results there, I think it’ll be hard to catch us.”