Who is the biggest club in Ireland?
And by Ireland, I mean the island of Ireland, not the Republic of Ireland – they will always be two different things to me. One could reasonably say it is one of four clubs: Cork City, Dundalk, Linfield and Shamrock Rovers.
There is no correct answer but Shamrock Rovers aficionados generally seem comfortable with the label and one can see why. With a record 17 Premier Division titles and a record 24 FAI Cups to their name, a modern stadium they call home and an academy structure that seems the envy of every foe, Rovers are perhaps still the biggest club in Ireland.
And that sense of who they are, of grandeur and expectation true to historic dominance, was quite evident when they trounced the champions 3-0. I found it quite startling how the crowd behaved in the match, albeit with the proviso that it was a serene Monday evening; on a Friday many more of them would have had a few pints beforehand.
The Rovers fans acted as if it were routine to thump Cork 3-0, even though they have been an irrelevance in the title race for pretty much all of the seven years that have passed since Michael O’Neill left. Even the stadium announcer was true to that sense of place.
“Third goalscorer for Rovers on 61 minutes, number four, Roberto Lopes,” is roughly how it went, rather monotone – in the manner befitting an end-of-season formality against a side already relegated. There was no fanfare whatever in his delivery, no booming conclusion to the sentence – as if it were habitual.
Stephen Bradley and Rovers come up in conversation frequently when I chat to mates about football and I got a WhatsApp message on Tuesday morning containing a post-game quote from the Hoops boss: “That’s what happens when you are at the biggest club in the country.”
My mate went on: “Good win yes but just keep the head down and go about your business.”
Rovers do quite a few press conferences and Bradley is thus asked a lot of questions, which he seems to answer with an honesty anathema to some of his peers. A year and a half or so into the job, he is still learning how to deal with the media and he is learning in other ways too.
What Rovers have come up with formation-wise at the moment is something, while not entirely dissimilar to Waterford’s, that I can’t recall seeing often, and Cork City had no answer to it. This was a shocking result that should challenge everything we knew, or thought we knew, about the hegemony in the top half.
One must accept that Graham Burke scoring after three minutes was critical to how the subsequent 87 panned out and Cork blew some fine chances but Rovers were not flattered to a great extent by the scoreline. Their somewhat experimental formation was critical to the win.
It starts with five at the back, essentially – three if you are playing especially inferior opposition. Lee Grace and Roberto Lopes were joined in the central area by Joey O’Brien, who is four years younger than Alan Bennett and was lining out for West Ham against Liverpool little over two years ago.
The wing backs were Seán Kavanagh and Ethan Boyle. Lopes is still a weak cog defensively in my view, making a daft mistake that should have seen Cork score in the first half, but he managed a goal himself and is at worst a fine squad player who can play in different positions with an excellent attitude.
O’Brien was lauded for his performance in Derry and the calmness and organisation he can inculcate in the pair beside him could make a dramatic difference to the Hoops, who have conceded two goals in their four matches since losing to Bohemians. More intriguing, though, was how they set up in midfield.
Rovers, somewhat similar to Chelsea last season at times, are playing with a block of four central midfielders: Bolgers Aaron and Greg, Ronan Finn and Graham Burke, who was again sensational and will surely not be playing in Ireland for the rest of his life. This is possibly a first at League of Ireland level – four central midfielders playing more or less in central midfield – and it is fascinating to observe.
For it to work, clearly, Bradley requires four players who are flexible – able to defend and cover ground but also seeking to surreptitiously penetrate enemy lines. The Bolger pair will provide defensive cover – two in a holding role – with the other two having more license to attack, the width provided in the main by the wing-backs. At worst, it things break down, they should have at least four players back at all times.
This affront to tradition represents a dilemma for opposition managers, who may not have come up against it before. Kenny Shields, who could be deemed the direct opposite to Bradley when dealing with the press, spoke of the quality of the Rovers players and how he knew “they had to eventually come out of their shell” after they dominated the Candystripes last weekend, albeit in a 0-0 draw.
Burke has been the outstanding player of 2018, this year’s Patrick McEleney only better; one wonders what the watching Martin O’Neill made of his languid demeanour under pressure and his insistence on not giving the ball away. What was more impressive here was his running when Cork had the ball. He worked extremely hard and Rovers need him to do that to realise their immense potential.
Aaron Bolger and Dylan Watts show that you do not need to look like a body builder to thrive in midfield in the League of Ireland and the former has made a huge impact since returning to the Hoops midfield. He has a gnarl about him at odds with his physique and can only get improve further, which is probably true for the team in general – at least it is true as long as they hold onto Burke.
The jury is out on the Rovers coaching team but I would be of the opinion that every manager deserves at least two seasons as a general rule. Bradley and Cronin might well have struck gold with this 5-4-1 system and, on the basis of Tuesday night, they look far better equipped to take on technically superior opposition in Europe than Cork City do. Moreover, their discipline was excellent.
If Cork spend so much time week to week not passing the ball, the appalling Turner’s Cross surface on Friday theoretically suiting them much more than it did Dundalk, it is not easy for their players to cope three days later with a Rovers team purring with a swagger on a carpet-like pitch in Tallaght.
If the league started now, Rovers would certainly deserve to be considered title contenders. The gap to Dundalk is surely too great but Monday night could be seen as the turning-point in the Bradley reign. The idea of the Hoops becoming the dominant force in Irish football once again seems more plausible than it has for some time.
Moreover, fourth place will probably do for Europe. According to Pat Fenlon, that was what the Rovers board required of him in his reign, and I wonder if it makes any discernible difference to them if they finish second or fourth – as long as they get the vital European money.
They get derided, too, over “the project” – even if the work the Hoops are doing at underage is clearly brave and brazenly revolutionary in Irish football. It is said that Bradley is on first-name terms with virtually every kid kid on the club’s books; Damien Duff has spoken of Bradley watching the latter’s under-15 training sessions on footage transmitted from the cameras attached to floodlight pylons. They say he is in Roadstone 12 hours a day.
Speaking to Alan Cawley recently, he ran out of superlatives describing Rovers’ 15s having seen them play. On Saturday, the Hoops’ 17s come to tackle Galway United at the home of Shiven Rovers – the club I played for as a kid and young adult – in northeast Galway.
My old neighbours will marvel at the quality and potential on show and perhaps fashion visions of a future Shamrock Rovers, just like their old neighbour did in Tallaght on Monday night.