Postcard from the endless penalty shootout

Sun, Aug 30 2020

Rovers players lineup as Dylan Watts takes a penalty Credit: Michael P Ryan (ETPhotos)

Macdara Ferris reports from Tallaght Stadium

It was a unique occasion. There was the behind closed doors element of the match – with some bonus supporters perched on the stadium's perimeter wall.

Gone was the usual two legged affair turning Tallaght on the night into a high stakes one-off match for a place in the second round of the Europa League qualifiers.

Thursday’ tie against Ilves Tampere was Shamrock Rovers’ 83rd game in Europe – no League of Ireland club has played more - but this was the first time Rovers be involved in a penalty shootout and what a shootout it was – one that included an incredible 21 penalties scored in a row. 

Last season the Hoops had won both their home games 2-1 in Europe in front of 5,000+ against SK Brann and Apollon Limassol but when the teams emerged onto the pitch on Thursday the Europa League theme tuned blasted out the PA and bounced around the empty stands in Tallaght Stadium.

As the match got underway, in Hungary Bohs were heading to penalties and the socially distanced media across the press box and the seating beside it were keeping an eye on that game too.

The Gypsies would have their own penalty drama but would lose their Europa League qualifier shootout to miss out on the €260,000 prize for winning the tie. However later in the week Matt Doherty’s move from Wolves to Spurs looks to have secured them at least €1.5m through a decade’s old sell on clause.

The Hoops trailed twice in game, falling behind first after a controversial penalty was awarded due to what referee Michal Ocenas deemed a handball when Joey O’Brien got the ball in the face. 

“It was a poor decision and never a penalty,” said O’Brien afterwards. “Luckily for us we regrouped and bounced back really well when they scored the penalty.”

Record equaling goal

The equaliser came from Graham Burke with a superb left foot strike from distance for his fourth goal in Europe. He is now the joint top scorer for the Hoops in European competitions - alongside Billy Dixon and Liam Tuohy and eighth in the all-time League of Ireland list.

The Hoops fell behind again just after the hour mark and still trailed with a dozen minutes to go. By that stage I’d written the draft opening paragraph of my match report on a ‘disappointing night in a damp Tallaght Stadium as Rovers were dumped out of Europe’.

I would keep the paragraph at the top of my match report for another hour before being able to delete it.

Set piece practice

Roberto Lopes’ late goal - his third from the last five European games - came from a planned set piece routine and that pleased Hoops Head Coach Stephen Bradley speaking to after the game.

“We felt front post was a really poor area for them,” said Bradley. “They don’t defend it well at all from corners or free kicks and we worked really hard yesterday on attacking that area.” 

The Hoops lost momentum though when Liam Scales picked up his second yellow card just prior to the end of the 90 minutes. 

Build that wall

With a man down Rovers defended with a deep lying defensive wall in extra-time as they effectively looked to take it to penalties.

At the start of 30 minute period from the pressbox we could begin to hear the odd shout from behind the goal at The Square end of the ground.

Then a bit more and before long about a dozen or so Rovers fans could be seen perched on the stadium perimeter wall having clambered up there via the ticket booth placed against the wall – at one stage a few flares were let off with now smoke and song drifting into the stadium.

“I think they helped us to be fair,” said Bradley about the vocal encouragement. “The support late on in the game was great.” 

LOI European shootouts

Only twice previously have League of Ireland sides being taken to penalties in Europe – Dundalk winning their Champions League Qualifier last season and Drogheda United in the 2006/07 UEFA Cup. Stephen Bradley was involved as a Drogheda player in that one which ended with United being eliminated 11-10 on penalties – second time around in a marathon shootout would be better for Bradley.

The Hoops Head Coach said after the game that the team hadn’t practiced penalties but of course his team has lots of experience. Goalkeeper Alan Mannus seems to excel when facing spot kicks.

He is a ‘keeper who earlier in his career saved three in Linfield’s 3-2 shootout win in the 2007 Irish Cup Final and last season he saved three plus one in Rovers victorious FAI Cup Final shoot-out.

“We kept it to similar lads who played in the cup final,” said O’Brien about the spotkicks which meant the first five penalty takers were the same as planned last November – beginning with Jack Byrne, then Joey O’Brien, Dylan Watts (in place of the injured Greg Bolger), Gary O’Neill and Aaron McEneff set for the fifth spotkick. 

The Hoops lost the toss to go first handing Ilves the statistical 60/40 advantage in the shootout, further boosted when Byrne’s penalty was pushed onto the post. While Ilves missed their second kick, the huge pressure began to build on Rovers as Ilves kept slotting the subsequent spotkicks home. 

Remarkably Rovers would match them scoring a dozen in a row despite knowing the pressure of a miss would send them out of Europe. No bother to 20-year-old Dean Williams, on debut in Europe, who took the sixth kick.

As it went on there were a couple of occasions when Ilves thought they had won it.

Danny Lafferty’s effort (Rovers peno number eight) clipped Mika Hilander’s feet but just crept over the line while Aaron McEneff’s second peno saw the Finnish captain get his hands to it but only push it into the side net.

Battling goalkeepers

The ‘keepers battled it out with each other and their side’s tenth penalties with Hilander slamming his in off the underside of the bar. Mannus calmly picked the ball up from the back of the net, strolled out to the peno spot, placed the ball and blasted it home for the Hoops to send the shootout into a second round of penalties.

‘Yeah, he just looked frustrated with the whole game and put his foot through it!” said Bradley about Mannus’ effort. “He does take the odd penalty in training when they are messing about and he hits them like that so we weren’t worried about him taking it when he stepped up.

“They were all good penalties but we knew Alan would save one, we knew he is that good on penalties that we just have to keep chipping away, keep chipping away and eventually Alan will save one, thankfully he came up trumps up for us again.”

That was the 25th penalty and he saved it diving to his right.

So at 10.46pm Joey O’Brien walked up to take his second spot kick - and the 26th one of the shootout. When he slotted it home to the right, Mannus’ reaction was to put his hands to his head in disbelief of being involved in such an incredible shootout – all before being buried by his celebrating teamates sprinting from the half-way line.

The players then trotted down the other end of the ground to celebrate with the Hoops supporters – the ‘Ilves dozen’ – peering in over the perimeter wall. Rovers European adventure continues and they will find out on Monday just who they will face in the second qualifying round on 17 September.