Tonight, Shamrock Rovers will embark on a journey which has never before been taken by an Irish club – when they take on Russian side Rubin Kazan in the group stages of the Europa League. In terms of Europe, Irish clubs have been knocking on the door for years – with the likes of Bohemians, Drogheda, Shelbourne, Cork City and Derry City all improving the League Of Ireland’s situation over the last couple of seasons.
So, it was only a matter of time before a club broke through the glass ceiling and perhaps it was fitting that it was Shamrock Rovers to do it, as they were the first Irish side to compete in a European competition – where they were humbled 6-0 by Manchester United in 1957.
Although, it hasn’t always been plain-sailing for The Hoops, certainly not in recent years when the club teetered on the brink of extinction – homeless, bankrupt, and relegated Rovers were on the cusp of examinership only to be saved by the club’s fans. Rovers rise and regeneration is the fairytale story for all the footballing romantics out there.
Having been saved by the fans – the 400 club – Rovers were promoted back to the Premier Division at the first attempt. Going from strength to strength – after being homeless for nigh on 20 years the club finally moved into their new home of the Tallaght Stadium in 2009 – before appointing Michael O’Neill, the man, along with his recently appointed assistant Jim Magilton who has overseen the latter stages Rovers regeneration.
This upward spiral culminated in Rovers reaching the third qualifying-round of last season’s Champions League where they faced Juventus. Last season was also their most successful in recent years as the won their record 16th title – ending their drought to win their first league title in 16 years when they beat rivals Bohemians on goal difference.
The Hoops were left with little time to prepare for tonight’s game as they had to fulfil a league game (because of the stubbornness from the powers that be) against St. Pat’s on Monday – which ended in a 1-1 draw, the club lie in 3rd on 58 points just one point off the top of the Airtricity League, with a game in hand. Tonight’s opponents – Kazan warmed up for the game with a 3-1 defeat to Krasnoda at the weekend and lie 7th in the Russian Premier League.
Luckily, Rovers will be able to play their games in their own backyard having got dispensation for UEFA to install extra seating at the Tallaght Stadium to boost the capacity to around 8,600 – the home atmosphere will be special and something which the Hoops will thrive on.
Rovers will break new ground tonight and while the financial rewards from playing in Europe are evident, there will also be the benefit of competing at one of the highest level against top quality sides and gaining valuable experience. While many will see Rovers as the whipping boys of Group A which along with Rubin Kazan, contains Tottenham, PAOK Salonika – Michael O’Neill’s side will also be a tough side to beat as they fly the flag for the League of Ireland in Europe.