Shamrock Rovers 0 Djurgården IF 0
Shamrock Rovers introduced themselves to the Europa Conference League on a night of new beginnings. The combination of teenage talent and grizzled veterans did all that was required to beat Swedish title contenders Djurgården.
All but put the ball in the Russian goalkeeper’s net.
In that sense Stephen Bradley’s charges will be disappointed, having carved out more chances than far wealthier opponents, but €166,000 in prize money for this result and the surge of confidence that should follow will carry them to Belgium and next Thursday’s clash with Gent, who also played out a scoreless draw with Molde of Norway.
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There was a moment’s silence before kick-off for the three siblings, Lisa Cash (18) and eight year old twins Chelsea and Christy Cawley, who were killed in Tallaght last Saturday night.
When the situation was explained in Swedish, 800 raucous Djurgården fans went mute.
The gardaí on horseback had been on high alert as two Luas trams were reserved for the visitors, who chanted from Busáras to the suburbs and back again. Their lively presence, among the 6,330 attendance, enhanced the occasion of Rovers’ return to the European group stages after 10 years.
The Rovers think-tank made three brave decisions pre-match, holding Daniel Cleary, Rory Gaffney and Jack Byrne in reserve.
Cleary was a surprise omission as he appeared to be filling the void left by Pico Lopes’s injury but Bradley reverted to Seán Gannon as Seán Hoare filled the middle of a three-man defence. Hoare limped off on 12 minutes, to be replaced by Cleary.
Dropping the in-form Gaffney also seemed odd with Rovers packing midfield and Aaron Greene going it alone up front.
Byrne, until recently considered the best footballer earning a living in Ireland, was so poor against Bohemians last Friday that the promotion of 17-year-old Justin Ferizaj actually made sense.
The gifted Ireland under-19 midfielder won’t be long for this environment and a cynic could interpret his selection as shrewd business if Rovers reap the financial benefits for years to come when Ferizaj comes of age at an English or European club, but it was all part of a wider tactical approach.
Socks down, the teenager worked tirelessly for an hour, until Byrne’s arrival.
The contest began as a backs to the wall affair. Djurgården were snappy and threatening but Chris McCann and Gary O’Neill provided the Rovers defence with a security blanket.
There were hairy moments, in particular weak touches by Lee Grace, Alan Mannus and McCann invited the Swedes into the Rovers box. A half-volley eventually fell to Hampus Finndell but Mannus gathered without any fuss.
When Rovers stopped showing them so much respect, and Bradley tinkered with the system, pushing Ferizaj and Dylan Watts closer to Greene, it became a game of equals.
Djurgården were wasteful, with Victor Edvardsen shooting far too early after a Cleary error before McCann’s long frame blocked Besard Sabovic’s snap effort.
As both sides scrapped for dominance, Ferizaj lost possession, but quickly won it back for McCann to give Watts a sight of goal. The midfielder blazed over.
Djurgården hit the target again before half-time but Marcus Danielson’s tame header was comfortably gathered by Mannus.
Rovers tore into them after the break with a Watts ball causing enough panic for Greene to find himself one-on-one with Aleksandr Vasyutin. The Russian goalkeeper bodied the Rovers striker wide enough to dissuade him from shooting as O’Neill arrived to fire into traffic before a Ferizaj belter sparked screams for a penalty. Andy Lyons spurned a free header from the resulting Ferizaj corner.
The three-sided Tallaght stadium was aflame, although it felt like Rovers had wasted two gilt-edged chances to win and bank a cool €500,000.
Djurgården manager Kim Bergstrand had seen enough, making four substitutions, which prompted Bradley to send Gaffney, Byrne, Seán Kavanagh and Neil Farrugia into the fray.
After all the chess moves, the football resumed and almost immediately Byrne put Gaffney clear on a dithering Vasyutin. The Tuam native seemed caught between two minds, to leather it or wait for Ronan Finn to arrive, and he ended up doing neither.
Edvardsen had another opportunity, but Rovers kept counterpunching with O’Neill breaking the line only for Watts’s attempt to be blocked by a thicket of Swedish legs.
Kavanagh had another speculative opportunity as the 90 minutes ticked past in the blink of an eye.
A thrilling night in Tallaght, tinged with regret. Onwards to rattle a Belgium citadel, with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Hoops faithful expected at the Ghelamco Arena.
“It was a clear penalty at the end,” said Bergstrand after Edvardsen went down under a Lyons challenge. “Poor performance but good result, Shamrock Rovers rarely lose here.”
Shamrock Rovers: Mannus; Gannon, Hoare (Cleary, 13 mins), Grace; Finn (Farrugia, 68 mins), McCann (Kavanagh, 61 mins), O’Neill, Watts, Lyons; Ferizaj (Byrne, 62 mins); Greene (Gaffney, 62 mins).
Djurgården IF: Vasyutin; Johansson, Danielson (Doumbouya, 90 mins), Ekdal, Bengtsson (Andersson, 60 mins); Finndell (Banda 60), Sabovic, Eriksson (Schuller, 60 mins); Asoro (Radetinac, 60 mins), Edvardsen, Wikheim.
Referee: Ivar Orri Kristjansson (Iceland).