League of Ireland 1 SPL 0
Tonight saw what is undoubtedly the greatest result in the history of Irish club football. The Republic has always produced great national sides capable of troubling the best international sides around, but rugby and the Gaelic sports are king there and the best soccer players have always primarily headed to England to seek their fortune, and so the League of Ireland has thus always struggled, much like the younger Welsh Premier League.
No Irish side has ever made it into the major stages of European competition…until tonight. Shamrock Rovers, who last season sealed a record 16th League of Ireland title, began this season in the Champions League, beating Flora Tallinn before succumbing to Copenhagen. As a result, they moved into the Europa League, but expectations would no doubt have remained low, especially after being drawn against Partizan of Belgrade, the reigning champions of Serbia and veterans of the Champions League and UEFA Cup group stages who themselves had been knocked out of this year’s Champions League by Belgian champions Genk.
And yet what happened is nothing short of a footballing miracle, another addition to the annals of history. David defeated Goliath, although it took him 30 extra minutes to do so. The first leg in Dublin finished 1-1. In Belgrade, Partizan took the lead. Up stepped Pat Sullivan, a 28 year old who has spent his whole career in Irish club football with the likes of UCD, Drogheda United and Cork City, to volley in from some 25 yards – a world class strike that if it was scored by a Rooney or a Messi we would never hear the end of.
Surely, though, you’re thinking that this cannot last. Partizan’s internationally-capped stars would eventually get going and close the game out. But not after 90 minutes. And not after 15 minutes of extra time either. They kept up the pressure but couldn’t find a way through a stubborn Irish defence. And then Shamrock suddenly found themselves with the ball in the Partizan box with about 10 minutes to go, and the Partizan goalkeeper made a clumsy challenge. Penalty given. Surely this is make or break – a goal would give the Dubliners a 2 goal cushion that would surely finish off the Serbians, but a miss would be heartbreaking and would surely lead to defeat…
As you can probably work out by what I have already written, yes, it was scored – Stephen O’Donnell was the hero, not just for Shamrock but for the whole of Irish club football, for which this is a monumentally significant day. Until now, all Irish club sides have been regarded as minnows; this result will provide such a massive boost for the League of Ireland, both financially and in terms of its status in Europe. To compare, this week the pundits were speculating about the financial implications missing out on the Champions League would have for Arsenal, and that still included Europa League participation. But whereas for the Gunners it would be seen as losing £20m, for Shamrock it is a gain of £5m, which is enormous for a club of its size that has struggled financially in recent years – this is another string to the bow of Ireland’s most successful club side.
And I’m sure the irony is not lost on the Scottish Premier League clubs tonight. Rangers, Celtic and Hearts all crashed out of the competition tonight, leaving no Scottish representation in European club football on September 1st for the first time in the history of continental competition. That this has come on the same night Irish club football took a historic step forward and make the SPL look even worse will only rub salt into the wounds. While Scottish club football is in a depressing state of disrepair tonight, the Guinness will be flowing once again on the other side of the Irish Sea.