Shamrock Rovers 2 SK Slovan Bratislava 1 (Slovan win 3-2 on agg)
Richie Towell may not finish his playing days at Shamrock Rovers, such is the midfielder's natural ability, but a thunderbolt here carves his name into the club's history.
The goal that made it 2-0 gifted the Tallaght air a collective roar everyone had forgotten ever existed. It gave the League of Ireland champions a brief glimpse at a glorious European night reborn in the time of vaccination. We braced for extra time, and penalties, but Vladimir Weiss, the best player on view, had other ideas.
This sounded like a football match. Looked like one too. Outside the stadium, an hour before kick-off, 1,500 hooped supporters trooped towards the unfamiliar. It had been a while. They adjusted.
Most of them were quick to lose the run of themselves. No violence nor thuggery, no seat stealing nor mass consumption, but as the sunset blinded the hardcore element behind Alan Mannus’s goal, chants for “Young Boys” of Switzerland went out. It wasn’t even half-time but they were one-nil up and loving their team again.
Alas, these chastised Slovakians progress to face the Swiss champions after Weiss settled the tie a week after he was supposed to. It was a cruel goal as Roberto Lopes appeared to be fouled in the build-up to the moment that settled matters.
"Awful decision," said Rovers manager Stephen Bradley. "That has to be one of the best Irish performances [in Europe] because we were playing a team at a really high level."
Really, this two-legged affair should have seen Rovers burnt to a crisp last Wednesday after the 36 degrees in Bratislava presented Weiss, fresh from the Euros, with two glorious chances to make this match a dead rubber. Mannus intervened, heroically, and the veteran Northern Ireland goalkeeper needed to produce more of the spectacular to keep out a blistering shot by Dutch midfielder Joeri de Kamps and the follow-up header by David Hrncar in the early exchanges.
That’s when things got really interesting. On paper, and using the visual evidence from the first leg, it should never have been this close a battle, but the atmosphere dovetailed with Rovers players demanding the ball and pressing as if their lives depended on it.
Progress would have banked them €380,000, on top of the €280,000 earned for making it this far, not to mention the €16 million in Uefa cash if they could somehow reach the Champions League group stages. Everyone was dreaming of regular competitive games like this one after Towell's masterpiece rattled the top right corner on 64 minutes. Rory Gaffney deserves credit for the assist.
Rovers turned the tie on its head after just 14 minutes when Graham Burke, pulled down by Slovan captain Vasil Bozhikov, struck his penalty to Adrian Chovan's left corner.
Chovan proved the villain by denying Lopes’s goalbound header with a strong palm in the dying stages.
So the curse goes on. An Irish club has never flipped a two-goal deficit in Europe. The gulf in standards between the Rovers team that lost on the road and beat Slovan all ends up in Tallaght is what will haunt Stephen Bradley and his players.
The draw for the third round of the Europa Conference League is on Monday. Rovers will be in it. On this evidence, they have every right to keep dreaming.
SHAMROCK ROVERS: Mannus; O'Brien (Hoare, 81 mins), Lopes, Grace; Finn, Towell (Greene, 84 mins), O'Neill (Watts, 71 mins), Mandroiu, Scales; Burke, Gaffney.
SLOVAN BRATISLAVA: Chovan; Medvedev, Kashia, Bozhikov, De Marco; Hrncar (Cavric, 59 mins), Kankava, de Kamps (Abena, 90 mins), Ratao (Zmrhal, 82 mins); Weiss (Mustfic, 90 mins), Henty (Ibrahim, 59 mins).
Referee: Mario Zebec (Croatia).