Shamrock Rovers looking to ride strong run all the way to big European payout

Champions meet Flora Tallinn looking to make group stages of Europa Conference League

Ronan Finn in action during the Europa Conference League third qualifying round,  second leg against Teuta at the Elbasan Arena in  Albania. Photograph: Dejan Lopicic/Inpho

Ronan Finn in action during the Europa Conference League third qualifying round, second leg against Teuta at the Elbasan Arena in Albania. Photograph: Dejan Lopicic/Inpho

 

Europa Conference League playoff, first leg: Flora Tallinn v Shamrock Rovers, Le Coq Arena, 5pm Irish time – Live Virgin Media Two

Domestically, Shamrock Rovers are three points clear of St Patrick’s Athletic with a game in hand while on the European front, they are the last Irish club standing.

Now, finally, they get the televised recognition this season deserves.

Such consistency points to an overwhelming focus on qualification for the Europa Conference League, where the promise of nights in north London or Rome or Berlin would place their famous hoops among the lower middle class colours of continental football.

Or so you would think.

“No, the priority is always domestically,” said Rovers manager Stephen Bradley, squashing an obvious narrative. “It has to be. Europe looks after itself.

“It is exciting for everyone when the games come around and if you can do well it is brilliant financially for the club, for the country and for the league. We know that this year, with the three teams [Dundalk and Bohemians genuinely rattled Dutch and Greek opposition].

“Our focus at the start of every year is always the league, that has to be number one,” Bradley insisted. “You could say you really fancy yourself in Europe this year and then you get AC Milan. It’s all in the luck of the draw. You can’t prime yourself for Europe because you don’t know what is going to be thrown up at you.”

Of course, this is incorrect. The whole point of the Europa Conference League is to ensure Rovers could draw Milan, get soundly beaten, yet still hold ambitions of transforming club fortunes via the minimum €2.9 million prizemoney earned by reaching the group stages of Uefa’s third-tier competition.

Not that Bradley is the naive type. No manager of sane disposition will leave themselves open to accusations of possessing notions. Sure the Dublin derby against Bohs is Sunday week.

Yet Rovers, one could venture, have been building a squad to win this very fixture simply because it offers the club life-altering cash prizes, like an extra €500,000 for every game they win thereafter.

Le Coq stadium provides an opportunity to become the latest small fish in a bottomless pond of euro. That, ultimately, is Shamrock Rovers’ long-term goal. It has to be what consumes strategic planning, if not by Bradley, then sporting director Stephen McPhail.

“I think [Flora] are the best team we have played this year in Europe,” Bradley added. “I would rank them ahead of Slovan.”

Perhaps Rovers deserve a mulligan for being dominated in Bratislava on a suffocating July evening. No such concerns in grey, misty Tallinn.

“They are an exciting team, they play good football, they have a lot of energy in and out of possession, a lot of threats.”

And a lot of Estonians. In fact, Jürgen Henn’s entire squad is local. That is extremely rare and might have something to do with Legia Warsaw ending their Champions League aspirations and AC Omonia of Cyprus edging them out of the Europa League on penalties, but it also shows an intent that Irish clubs can only dream about.

Rovers are equally a sum of their parts team, which makes the loss of centre back Lee Grace and 17-year-old striker Aidomo Emakhu feel significant.

“You see the goals we’ve scored,” said captain Ronan Finn, “they are manufactured. They are not just long balls hoofed into the box.

“I don’t think we have ever come into a game looking for 0-0, it’s not in our make-up. We will treat them with the same respect we treat every opponent and go out to get a positive result and make sure we come back to Tallaght with a great crowd and atmosphere and finish the job.”

Shut out for what seems an eternity, 3,500 supporters dearly hope so.

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