Shkupi 1927 1 Shamrock Rovers 2
(Adetunji 93; Gaffney 64, Emakhu 85)
(Rovers win 5-2 on aggregate)
Glory days for Shamrock Rovers.
Confusingly denied a national audience to showcase what Irish club football has become, Tallaght’s finest sporting entity are storming into the group stages of European football.
All that needs sorting is which competition. Rory Gaffney’s deflected lob and Aidomo Emakhu’s injury-time finish secured victory over Shkupi 1927, sending Rovers into a Europa League play-off against Ferenvváros, with a nine-day turnaround before the first leg in Budapest.
Defeat to the Hungarian champions and the Europa Conference League beckons, with the guarantee of six unforgettable nights, three at home, as eye-popping cash floods into the Dublin club.
This result alone guarantees €3 million from Uefa’s “solidarity” fund to assist with chartered flights and squad strengthening for the road ahead.
At €10 to stream on LOITV, this mature display proved a real bargain.
Much like the first leg, when Rovers built a 3-1 lead, the Todor Proeski Arena was unprepared for a modern, possession based approach by an Ireland team. Long gone are the boot and bollick days and the naivety that has characterised Rovers forays on to the Continent before this Skopje adventure.
They win and learn now.
In 2020 Gaffney returned to Ireland, after five years drifting around England’s League Two, with a goal-for-game ratio that was pure deception. Rovers head coach Stephen Bradley gave him a simple remit; the press starts with the centre forward so he either inspires or depresses the system.
That is the Rovers way. Gaffney selflessness has proved the perfect fit. The goals are a bonus that keep coming.
Bradley’s squad — and that’s what they are, having maintained high standards despite losing their most influential players Jack Byrne, Chris McCann and Pico Lopes to injury — present as a compact, wily outfit keen to work from tip of spear to shaft.
Gaffney was magnificent, once again, as the lone striker. In fact, the Tuam native dropped into a gaping hole vacated by Shkupi’s desperate 2-5-3 formation.
Bradley can punch plenty of holes in this performance. Rovers should have been out the gate by the sixth minute but Kristijan Naumovski’s leg deflected a Gaffney shot on to the post before Richie Towell left two goals behind him.
First, Towell’s clear look was sent over the crossbar by Naumovski, after brilliant work by Gaffney and Ronan Finn, and nearing half-time the veteran midfielder also saw a poor effort cleared off the line by Senghor Faustin.
The missed opportunities did not come back to haunt Rovers as Shkupi adopted an increasingly loose approach. Not quite the cynical hacking of Malta and Bulgaria — Rovers fans are seeing the world in 2022 — but Blerton Sheji earned a yellow card for chopping down Aaron Greene. The hosts had four bookings by the hour mark. All fully deserved.
That Adem Ali did not reappear for the second period felt like coach Goce Sedloski waving the white flag. With Rovers back three forcing Brazilian Queven (pronounced ‘Kevin’) on to his right foot, the 22 year old winger had been their most dangerous player.
Rovers defence never seemed unduly troubled with their discipline holding until Sunday Adetunji’s consolation goal in stoppage time. Alan Mannus had to make some saves from long range efforts, but new signing Dan Cleary gelled quickly with Lee Grace and the outstanding Sean Hoare.
So, the North Macedonian “lions” are away to the Faroes, or Kosovo, for a Conference League play-off. Judging from Rovers opposition these past two campaigns, the third tier is where Shkupi belong. Rovers will probably join them, as they have a better chance of earning the €500,000 win bonus in the basement-competition’s group stages.
Wherever they land, the Euro tap is flowing, as Budapest comes next to test the mettle of Ferenvváros. It’s a tie worth €3.6 million and change.
Shamrock Rovers will grow exponentially after this. The FAI’s trick is to ensure the rest of the League of Ireland can hold pace.
Next up, St Pat’s versus CSKA Sofia on Thursday in Tallaght, of all places.
Glory days, mad days, the first step on a new road.
Shkupi 1927: Naumovski; Timovski (Demiri 79), Faustin, Margvelashvili, Sheji (Brdarovski ht); Ali (Trapanovski ht), Alvarez, Queven; Georgiev (Kalanoski 79, Adetunji, Diéne (Dzelil ht).
Shamrock Rovers: Mannus; Cleary, Hoare, Grace; Finn (Gannon 69), Towell (Burke 62), O’Neill, Watts, Lyons (Farrugia 81); Greene (Emakhu 81); Gaffney (Kavanagh 69).
Referee: Aleksei Kulbakov (Belarus).