While the spotlight in tonight’s Champions League Group F game between APOEL of Nicosia and Barcelona will as usual mainly be on blaugrana superstars Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, Barca’s defenders will do well to keep an eye on the home side’s Cavan-born centre-forward Cillian Sheridan.
After stops along the way at Bailieborough Celtic, Belvedere, Celtic, Motherwell, Plymouth, St Johnstone, CSKA Sofia, Seattle Sounders and Kilmarnock, tonight the 25-year-old is set to start in probably the biggest occasion in Cypriot club football history.
“It is hard to compare them, but APOEL is one of the biggest teams in Cyprus,” Sheridan told The Irish Examiner. “For the Champions League games you get a full stadium and its a very different atmosphere, it gets pretty loud. There’s a lot of passion, it takes a bit of getting used to.”
Those passionate home fans will be pinning many of their hopes for an upset tonight on their bearded and burly front man – who in just over 12 months at APOEL has already become something of a cult hero.
After being brought to Cyprus by former Hearts manager Paulo Sergio, the first few months did not go to plan, but things soon turned under new boss Giorgos Donis.
In early May Sheridan scored as APOEL beat Ermis Aradippou 2-0 in the Cypriot Cup final. Ten days later he notched the only goal in the title-deciding game against AEL Limassol. His place in club folklore secured.
“It was really good,” he says. “To be involved in such big games, and to have a say in the them, to score goals in them, was great.
Sheridan has always seemed to enjoy the big stage – playing in the Champions League for Celtic at Old Trafford as a more clean-cut teenager, and as his career progressed scoring in wins for St Johnstone over Rangers and Kilmarnock back at Celtic Park.
More lately he’s been dealing with the challenge of living abroad, and gelling with teammates from Brazil, Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Argentina, as well as ex-Liverpool player John Arne-Riise.
His twitter followers will also know he keeps in touch with home, watching Ireland soccer and rugby internationals, and also the Love/Hate series online.
“I get everything on the laptop, yeah, but everybody gets on,” he says. “Players come from different backgrounds, but there’s been no problems settling in. Everybody here speaks very good English as well — you have to here.”
There has however been little time for much socialising recently, as his team have been playing twice most weeks – and despite the potential distractions of Europe they remain top of the domestic table after drawing 0-0 at second placed Apollon on Friday night.
Their Champions League campaign began back in July, with Sheridan scoring three times in four games as APOEL eased past both the champions of Finland (HJK Helsinki) and Denmark (Aalborg BK) to make the groups stages.
Former Blackburn Rovers midfielder Donis’ side were then drawn in a group alongside three clubs stacked with world superstars and European pedigree – Barca, Paris Saint Germain and Ajax. But, as Sheridan says quite proudly, the supposed whipping boys have continued to give a good account of themselves.
“With the group that we’re in some people thought we might get hammered,” he says. “This year we’ve been quite unlucky when we’ve played at home. We’re still in a position where we can pass through (to the Europa League).
“It’s a very hard group, but I don’t think we’ve been out of place at all.”
That argument makes sense, as APOEL have just one point from their first four games, but they have all been tight affairs – including a 1-0 loss to Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Their point came in a 1-1 home draw with Ajax – in which Sheridan came close to heading a late winner.
As a big fish domestically APOEL tend to dominate possession, giving their big centre-forward more chances to score. But tonight will be mostly about working hard and being disciplined off the ball, looking to disrupt Barca’s build-up play and then maybe use their 6’4” number nine to take advantage of the Catalans’ long-standing issues defending set-pieces.
“Yeah, it’s a bit different from our league games,” he admits. “Especially if you are playing a team like Barcelona, who will have that much possession of the ball.
“You know you will not get that many chances, but when they come you know you have to make the most of them.”
Being the only Irishman playing in this season’s Champions League has led to speculation that Sheridan might soon add to his three senior Ireland caps – the last of which came in a friendly in Dublin against Messi’s Argentina in 2010.
Martin O’Neill has mentioned his name on occasion, and other attackers such as Ipswich Town pair Daryl Murphy and now David McGoldrick have instead received calls despite playing at a much lower level.
“Nothing has happened on that front to be honest,” Sheridan says. “I’d definitely like to be involved. I watched the Scotland game here, and it was a bit disappointing, but they did get a good win against the US.”
This season’s extra high-profile could now lead to interest from clubs back in Scotland, or perhaps in England’s Championship. But looked at another way, why would he leave – given the life in Nicosia is good, and APOEL are clearly a side going places.
“Yeah, for me it has been positive,” he says. “I’m very happy at the club, I’m comfortable living here.”
Another goal tonight, and his club’s passionate fans might never let him leave.
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