Champions League first qualifying round: Shamrock Rovers v Hibernians (Malta), Tallaght stadium, Tuesday, 7.30pm – Live RTÉ 2
Danny Mandroiu is the latest Shamrock Rovers player to outgrow the League of Ireland. The skilful attacker has joined League One side Lincoln City, who recently appointed Mark Kennedy as head coach after Rovers boss Stephen Bradley rejected the chance to swap Tallaght for the East Midlands.
None of this should impact Rovers, as the only Irish squad capable of fielding competitive teams deep into winter, but Jack Byrne’s calf issues and Graham Burke’s fresh injury denies them a creative edge over their Maltese guests.
“Danny’s been brilliant for us,” said Bradley. “I don’t want to see him go, obviously, but his contract is up at the end of the year. He came in and you hear all these stories that he’s this or he’s that, but he has been fantastic for us both on and off the pitch. I couldn’t speak highly enough of him.”
Mandroiu was neither this nor that, with seven goals and four assists in 18 appearances this season, clearly rehabilitating a professional career that threatened to peter out after struggling at Brighton and Bohemians.
Dylan Watts, Rory Gaffney and Aaron Greene are expected to fill the void, with teenager Aidomo Emakhu a real weapon off the bench, as Rovers attempt to swell their coffers with a continental run that delivers safe passage into the Europa Conference League.
Bradley plays down the importance of European football over securing a third league title on the trot but the €4.5 million in prize money – just for reaching the Conference group stages – exceeds the indirect income derived from Gavin Bazunu’s recent switch from Manchester City to Southampton.
And if Europe is not a priority for a club 10 points clear in their domestic league, then the overall point of Irish football’s existence comes under scrutiny.
Byrne’s continued absence and last season’s failed attempt by Rovers to build a squad capable of muscling past the Estonian and Slovakian champions should give Hibernians plenty of confidence. The evening sun in Paola come next week’s second leg might also play a factor.
Nor will the visitors be intimidated by Shamrock Rovers’ reputation in Europe. In fact, ‘The Peacocks’ have won five of their 26 Champions League outings since 1962, even knocking out Shelbourne in 2002, while Rovers’ two victories from 22 matches dates back to a 6-0 trimming by Manchester United in 1957.
Times have changed. Some 45,000 welcomed the Busby Babes to Dalymount Park that night. Rovers have sold 5,850 tickets for Tallaght stadium.
Out of season and without suspended manager Stefano Sanderra and banned players Andrei Agius, Bjorn Kristensen and Ferdinando APAP, due to Hibs’ controversial end to last season’s European adventure, means that Rovers should progress despite the loss of Mandroiu.