Europa League Postcard: From Zlatan to Zefi

Sun, Sep 20 2020

Lee Grace and Zlatan Ibrahimovic tussle in Tallaght Credit: Michael P Ryan (ETPhotos)

Macdara Ferris reports from Tallaght Stadium

There were usual temperature checks on arrival at a Tallaght Stadium devoid of fans. Those in attendance were wearing masks, and Stephen Bradley and Stephen McPhail watched a Shamrock Rovers team play well but lose 2-0.

This was the scene in Tallaght for the Friday’s First Division game between Rovers II and Cabinteely, just 24 hours on from the whirlwind of the Hoops taking on one of the giants of world football in AC Milan. 

Stephen Bradley sat in the press box watching Aidan Price’s team take on Cabo – so for him it went from on Thursday watching the stellar Zlatan Ibrahimovic still doing the business a fortnight away from his 39th birthday to the next day watching Kevin Zefi who a fortnight ago at 15 years of age became the youngest ever goalscorer in League of Ireland history.

The press box was empty enough on Friday night for Bradley, McPhail and goalkeeping coach Jose Ferrer to share with the three members of the media including this extratime.com reporter who were watching the First Division game.

24 hours previously it was a different story as the press were in the East Stand opposite the dugouts in a temporary location that had constructed to accommodate the sizeable media team from Milan (in excess of a dozen) and journalists from every sports media team in Ireland all sitting a minimum 2m from one another.

I was one very fortunate to be able to attend this game to cover the match for extratime.com and the privilege was heightened in the run up to match day with the amount of people asking was I going to be able to watch Zlatan & Co.

My Shamrock Rovers supporting friends – and the Irish sporting public – were able to tune in on TV (peaking at 266,000 in Ireland on RTÉ) but I don’t need to explain this is not the same as being in the stadium. 

In Tallaght on Thursday there were a few people loitering with ladders outside the ground hoping to catch a glimpse of the game but additional fencing outside the stadium prevented any fan from watching on the perimeter wall like occurred in the previous round.

One Rovers fan booked a room in the top floor of the Maldron Hotel across the road from the ground. With beer cooling in the bathroom sink and the RTÉ coverage on TV, he could just about see the Square end of the pitch where Milan scored their second goal. The Garda chopper also had a good view of the game.

Stephen Kenny and Keith Andrews were sitting in front of me, no doubt watching and listening to Jack Byrne “Lee, give me the f***in’ ball” probably his best line. Byrne was the standout player for Rovers in Europe last year and his quality was clear to see again on Thursday even against such high quality opposition. 

The Hoops were hoping to catch Milan cold as the Italian visitors were playing their first competitive game of the season but the Italian side were on the press right from the first whistle till the last, with their crisp passing a delight to watch.

Stephen Bradley made the point afterwards that he expected the visitors to be right on their game and they were.

“Top players don’t switch off," he said. "They may be away from the club but they are still training. They have personal trainers and they work. We watched all their pre-season games and we knew they were at it.” 

At times Milan’s physicality went beyond the rules – conceding 19 fouls – but referee Adam Farkas didn’t flash a card at any Milan player. It was the Hungarian referee’s second visit to Tallaght as he was part of the officiating team for Rovers’ 2011 Europa League group game against Rubin Kazan.

When Juventus played in Tallaght a decade ago, it was a 2-0 win for the Itailian side but, while it was the same scoreline against Milan, the Hoops were much more in this game creating and handful of goalscoring chances all on target – the best of which came off a Jack Byrne through ball and a drilled Aaron Greene left foot shot.

21-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma pulled off a fine save with his right hand that time and twice later Greene forced the Milan captain into action. The Hoops rode their luck a little bit at the other end before they coughed up possession in their own half allowing Zlatan to score after a one-two with Hakan Calhanoglu mid-way through the first half.

“From watching their games, we knew how they pressed,” said Bradley. “Our players handled it well and our press was good at times and then we got done but that’s what happens against top teams.”

The impressive Turkish international got the visitor’s second on 68th minute to snuff out any realistic Rovers chance in the game after a fine passing move by Milan that certainly impressed the Italian match commentator – describing Calhanoglu as “Tom Cruise in Top Gun.”

With COVID-19 regulations in place, there was no formal post-match press conference so we didn’t get to hear from Stefano Pioli but both Stephen Bradley and Gary O’Neill stood pitchside to talk to the media.

Bradley had seen his team lose for the first time at home since June last year but was clearly very proud of how his team had played and how they approached the game without compromising their style of play.

“We were knocked out by Lismassol last year and I was disappointed that we didn’t play our way. So we said this year, we would play our way and the players trust in what we do. I’m really proud of the group. I thought they were outstanding.”

By 9pm the Milan convoy of coach, mini-bus and a few executive taxis carrying the Milan club officials (including their Technical Director Paulo Maldini) was heading to the airport with a Garda escort, as the Tallaght ground staff we already getting ready for the First Division game to come less than 24 hours later.

On Monday Milan will play their first Serie A game of the season when they take on Bologna in the San Siro. At the same time Rovers will be back in action in Tallaght. With Milan put to the back of their minds, Waterford will be the focus for Rovers as they look to move eight points clear at the top of the table with six games remaining.