This year marked the 110th birthday of Shamrock Rovers, and the club’s history has been nothing if not turbulent. Ups, generally speaking, have been plentiful. The Dubliners are, after all, the most successful team in the League of Ireland’s history, and hold the national record for most league championships (17) and FAI Cups (24).
They have also enjoyed some notable European adventures, the most memorable of which – prior to this season at least - involved a major shock for the mighty Bayern Munich. On that occasion, back in 1966, only a last-gasp goal from the great Gerd Muller spared the Bavarians’ blushes in a tight 4-3 aggregate win.
Yet the Hoops’ history has also included its fair share of misery and, until fairly recently, their very existence was in peril. Financial woes in football are widespread in a country where primary allegiances tend to lie with clubs in England and Scotland, but Rovers had further difficulties to endure.
Homelessness and rebirth
These began in earnest in 1987 when, to the outrage of supporters, the club’s owners sold their Milltown ground to property developers. So began a period of homelessness that lasted for over two decades, during which Rovers – having just won four titles in succession – claimed the championship only once.
It was only in 2009, after 22 years of flitting between five temporary homes, that the club once again had a ground to call its own. And it was no accident that, after finishing second in their first season in the Tallaght Stadium, they followed that up with a first title in 16 years in 2010.
A new-found stability behind the scenes had been complemented by the arrival of a talented young manager in Michael O’Neill, who wasted little time in moulding the Hoops players into the nation’s foremost outfit. And this season has proved to be their greatest yet.
Retaining the title for the first time since 1987 wasn’t wholly unexpected, but O’Neill’s side managed it with a game to spare, and in fairy tale fashion too. There were 94 minutes on the clock in their penultimate match against UCD last Tuesday when Rovers, long since reduced to ten men, struck to claim a title-winning 2-1 win thanks to super-sub Dean Kelly.
"It's a marvellous achievement and the players deserve immense credit,” was the reaction of a beaming O’Neill. “They have been superb all season and they deserve this. They have topped the table for something like 27 weeks so they are worthy champions over the season."
And yet, impressive though those title-winning exploits were, Rovers’ season is likely to be remembered more for their efforts outside Ireland. After all, it wasn’t winning the championship that earned them headlines across the continent, but rather the historic achievement of becoming the first Irish club to reach the group stage of a European competition.
Miracle in Belgrade
The part-timers did so by claiming a scalp that took everyone by surprise, with former European Cup finalists Partizan Belgrade beaten 2-1 in Serbia to send Rovers on to meet Tottenham Hotspur, Rubin Kazab and PAOK in the UEFA Europa League. The Partizan fans even applauded their Irish visitors off the field after a remarkable night that O’Neill later attributed to his players’ “unbelievable courage and heart”.
Rubin beat the Hoops 3-0 in the sides’ group opener, but it seemed like yet another fairy tale was on the cards in their next match when Stephen Rice gave O’Neill’s side a 50th-minute lead at White Hart Lane. Tottenham eventually battled back to win 3-1, but Rovers’ 5,000-strong travelling support remained behind nonetheless to acclaim their players’ herculean efforts.
There was praise, too, from Spurs boss Harry Redknapp, who said afterwards: “Shamrock were a real credit. Michael has got them playing some fantastic football. They were well-organised, determined and made it very difficult for us.”
A home match against PAOK - narrow 2-1 winners in Greece - now awaits tomorrow evening, and O’Neill’s side haven’t yet given up on springing another surprise before the campaign is out. “It's been a great season for us,” reflected the Rovers boss. “We're league champions, we won the all-Ireland title and we became the first Irish club to reach the group stage of a UEFA competition. We want to keep progressing. And now we can try again in the Champions League next season!"