Shamrock Rovers 3 FC Shkupi 1927 1
(Burke (p), Watts, O’Neill; Queven)
A goal that could change everything. It only took Gary O’Neill 96 minutes to curl an effort of beauty into the Shkupi net.
Worth the wait.
What began with Government intervention and an accusation of “evil” Irish behaviour, ended with Shamrock Rovers seemingly regretting another wobble in Europe. That’s until O’Neill’s last gasp strike erased “Queven” da Silva Inacio’s brilliant goal and enhanced early finishes by Graham Burke and Dylan Watts as both Rovers and the North Macedonians retain hope of reaching the Europa League proper.
In a game that ticked every conceivable box, from Burke’s sublime passing to quality goals, an overdue red card and grandstand finish, Rovers came of age on the big stage.
But that is only half the story. The fixture was nearly sullied by a threatening letter, posted on the Shkupi website, allegedly by club owner Olgun Peker (previously Olgun Aydin, who has a colourful past in Turkish football). Officials from Shkupi present in Tallaght expressed embarrassment for Peker’s refusal to withdraw allegations that the Irish Government are “evil” because the visiting team’s charter was forced to land in Shannon and not Dublin Airport.
Turns out Rovers must fly back into Shannon following next week’s second leg due to a well-published staff crisis in the aviation industry.
“We would like to say to the Irish that they should know well that we have a very characterful team,” read the incendiary Shkupi statement. “The reward of being a team is to respond as a team to the evil done to you in the same way. Today our team will show you what a character it is, like lions on the field, it will show that there is no team that will not bow down to such cheap games. Such cheap games should not have a place in football, they should not go unpunished.
“You landed Ludogorets in Dublin. Could you treat us the same if any Italian, Spanish, German or English team showed up? We hope our Government will respond to this situation.”
Both Rovers and the FAI firmly rejected accusations of “cheap games,” with association president Gerry McAnaney and Minister of State for Sport Jack Chambers becoming involved when Shkupi expressed concerns about securing direct passage into Ireland.
The “lions” were more like house cats in the opening exchanges as Rovers gleefully punished Shkupi’s risky high press.
Burke was magnificent, drilling the penalty on 12 minutes, after Andy Lyons was needlessly cut down by Albert Diéne in a crowded box.
Rory Gaffney has been a selfless cog in the Rovers machine for two years, holding up ball with assured touches, but for the second goal the centre forward drifted left to receive a sumptuous ball from Burke. His early delivery allowed Watts to expertly finish into the left corner.
Shkupi frustrations boiled over with Polish referee Bartosz Frankowski flashing three yellow cards as Walid Hamidi was fortunate to avoid red for his nasty foul on Ronan Finn. Hamidi eventually walked in the 84th minute after another rash tackle, this time on O’Neill.
Bradley made what will either prove a wise or overly cautious decision to replace Burke with Aaron Green on 54 minutes. Maybe it was influenced by the latest dirty stroke as Vladica Brdarovski was booked for hacking Watts.
Burke’s ability to glide between the lines has softened the loss of Jack Byrne and Danny Mandroiu in recent weeks. Byrne continues to struggle with a hip flexor and man of the match Chris McCann limped ashore on the hour mark.
Rovers temporarily lost their electric current, although an O’Neill pile driver forced a good save from Kristijan Naumovski before Alan Mannus produced something similar when Queven let fly. The Brazilian would come again.
Besides these speculative efforts, and another by Watts, the contest became a cagey chess match between Bradley and Shkupi coach Goce Sedloski. The benches were emptied and it felt like the next goal would determine the tie.
Queven’s serving shot with 13 minutes remaining sucked the air out of Tallaght stadium’s 6,455 attendance but Rovers responded with the mark of champions as O’Neill had the final say.
Skopje next Tuesday should be fascinating and a little dangerous.
Shamrock Rovers: Mannus; Gannon, Hoare, Grace; Finn (Farrugia 72), O’Neill, Watts (Kavanagh 72), McCann (Towell 61), Lyons; Burke (Greene 54), Gaffney (Emakhu 72).
Shkupi: Naumovski; Timovski (Brdarovski ht), Faustin, Margvelashvili, Demiri; Queven (Dzelil 90), Alvarez (Ali 64), Diéne; Hamidi, Adetunji (Georgiev 64), Cephas (Trapanovski 64).
Referee: Bartosz Frankowski (Poland).