Rovers and the long road to recovery


Soccer/Emmet MaloneIf any of the National League's clubs could do with some Christmas cheer and an overdue bout of good fortune in the New Year, then surely it's Shamrock Rovers.

They could hardly have been expecting any seasonal charity from Shelbourne at Richmond Park on Sunday, and so can't have been surprised when they were somewhat harshly beaten by their old rivals.

The defeat was the third in four games for the Hoops and effectively ended their ambitions of playing in the UEFA Cup. The task now is to make sure of third place and a slot in the InterToto Cup, although even that will require a considerable improvement in form between now and the end of January.

The real challenge for manager Liam Buckley lies beyond this time-frame. Having had only limited scope to make changes after taking over last summer, he now has little option but to seriously re-organise his squad.

The extent of his problems were partly visible on Sunday, with the team including a left winger at left back, a full back at centre half, and a striker on the left wing. Of the three, Stephen Grant actually looks more effective in his new role out wide, while Richie Byrne did well enough in the centre of defence, but to loosely paraphrase the one time American vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, I've worked with left backs, some left backs have been friends of mine and James Keddy is no left back.

In agreeing to play there, though, and working extremely hard in difficult circumstances on Sunday to get on top of the task, Keddy has shown a commitment to the club that will presumably not have gone unappreciated.

The root of Buckley's defensive problem is in the centre, where differences between the manager and his first-choice partnership at the start of the season appear to mean that neither Pat Scully nor Stephen McGuinness will figure regularly again for the first team. Scully, as it happens, is reported to have observed recently that he half-expects to finish his career (he has another year on his contract with Rovers) in the under-21s.

Add to this the fact that Kevin Hunt is keen to move to Britain. Dunfermline have tabled an offer, which the young striker wants accepted, although Rovers are hoping that late interest from the likes of Hearts, Kilmarnock and Sheffield United might result in a more lucrative offer.

Meanwhile, striker Luke Dimech has expressed concern that the new timing of the season here might jeopardise his status as a regular in the Maltese national team. Then there is Marc Kenny, who is so disaffected that upon hearing he was on the bench for the Derry game, he simply nipped off home again. Jason Colwell, too, has lost his regular spot in central midfield since his father relinquished his position as chairman. It is clear there could be some serious traffic in and out of the club.

Buckley could even add to the turnover by simply releasing a couple of players whose contracts run out at the end of this season, although the extent of the likely changes may just make him more inclined to retain experienced figures like Greg Costello.

On Sunday, Buckley made it clear that he would not be able to fund a squad of full-timers to compete with those already in place at Shelbourne and Bohemians. However, he made it clear he would place greater demands on the players who are at the club next season.

Just what money will be available to improve things, though, remains one of the key questions for those who have stuck with the club through some very frustrating times. The move to Tallaght remains the main priority for the board, but there is a fear that money-raising schemes like the 400 club, whereby supporters effectively pledge to fund a mortgage, and the rumoured intention to sell the rights to operate the club bars will provide capital up front but could then kill off some of the revenue streams expected to fund the day-to-day running of the club.

It is a difficult balancing act and Buckley is far from the only figure involved in attempting to pull it off. Sunday's match programme included an interview with the club's new financial secretary, Paul Boyle, while recently-appointed chairman Tony Maguire is a strong advocate of initiatives like the 400 club.

If, between them, they can finally get Rovers into their home (something that would, of course, mean that they finally stop subsidising their rivals with rental income), then they will have made a contribution to be proud of. And if Buckley can improve on challenging for a place in the InterToto with a substantially changed group of players while all of that is going on in the background, then he will surely have achieved more than he did when retaining the league at St Patrick's in what were, by comparison, much more settled circumstances.