Shamrock Rovers enter Solskjaer’s Molde den in Europa Conference League

Runaway Norwegian league leaders expected to be too strong for Bradley’s men

Molde v Shamrock Rovers. Aker stadium, 5.45pm – Live Virgin Media 3 & BT Sport 4

Another trip to an actual sporting nation and a club with a well-rounded modern stadium. Another snappy chapter in the revival of Irish football.

Shamrock Rovers’ entire season can crystalize into a successful campaign over the next seven days. This result only matters if they draw or, somehow, manage to beat the runaway Norwegian league leaders.

What really matters is victory over Shelbourne in Tallaght on Sunday before Molde’s return visit the following Thursday.


Rovers manager Stephen Bradley will be eyeing up these fixtures, because by beating Shels a third successive league title will look safe, especially if Derry City slip up at home to Finn Harps, before a crack at banking €500,000 for winning a Europa Conference League group game.

Rovers have the safety nets of Drogheda United away and St Patrick’s Athletic at home to nail down their domestic dominance before Gent visit on October 27th. So, the club’s parallel goals – winning the league and one Group F match – remain very much on track.

Just in time for Cape Verde international Pico Lopes to reappear at the heart of the Hoops defence. That Bradley has dug into his squad and kept the starting XI competitive on two fronts is perhaps the most impressive aspect of Rovers season so far.

Jack Byrne, Danny Mandroiu and Lopes seemed like essential elements before the summer months but Byrne is only rediscovering form and fitness, Mandroiu returned to England with Lincoln City and Lopes was neatly replaced by Daniel Cleary.

Cleary, the 26-year-old centre half who began his professional career at Liverpool, looked an astute July signing until his slip up in Belgium ruined any chance of Rovers troubling Gent. Post-match Bradley shouldered the blame by insisting his players must play out from the back.

“It’s not all the gaffer’s fault, it’s on me as well,” said Cleary this week. “You probably get killed the exact same [against Molde] for it – slipping in your own six-yard box. But I like getting the ball from the ‘keeper. I like playing that way.

“You’d do it again and play out from the back. I am big and bold enough to take it on the chin. So I don’t let it me get me down.”

It was not to be the first time, nor will it be the last, that Rovers are left red-faced while staying true to a sustainable brand of football. Cleary’s mistake and another by Lee Grace against Ludogorets revealed a gulf in technical standards from the League of Ireland to the lowest rung of the European club ladder.

Group F has yet to settle, with Gent and Djurgardens level on four points ahead of their meeting in Belgium, although Molde probably need to take at least four points off Rovers to reach the knock-out stages. Even that would be criticised by their local media as they are 15 points clear of second-placed Bodo/Glimt in the Eliteserien with six games remaining.

Gent cruised past Rovers last month but Bradley indicated that the Norwegians are a stronger side, which tallies with a club that fed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Erling Haaland to the Premier League.

Haaland’s cousin, teenager Albert Braut Tjåland, is rising through the ranks but the primary goal threat is Ivory Coast international Datro Fofana. The powerful striker has 14 goals in all competitions while veteran midfielder Magnus Wolff Eikrem is expected to eclipse Byrne’s influence in the creative stakes.

The Astro surface also offers a different dimension to proceedings.

Former Republic of Ireland under-21 goalkeeper Sean McDermott, who plays for Norwegian strugglers Kristiansund, believes that Rovers can leave their mark on the Conference League by reverting to an old Irish tradition.

“They don’t like to get tough in tackles, doing the dirty side,” McDermott told The Irish Daily Mirror. “They have it in them, but they don’t like it. They prefer teams to sit back and let them play their nice football.”

Same could be said of Rovers but from the killing fields of Malta to chastening nights in Bulgaria, Hungary and Belgium, the European education of Shamrock Rovers has evolved to a stage where they must be willing to do whatever it takes to plant a flag on foreign soil.

Failing that, to win just once in Tallaght.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent