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Shamrock Rovers qualify for the Europa League - bring our pride back

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Shamrock Rovers players huddle

 A musical opened in Dublin the other night commemorating the life of George Best, Northern Ireland’s greatest footballer, at a time when Irish football is celebrating the feats of a man who followed him in the other green jersey.


Michael O’Neill is now the manager of the Shamrock Rovers side that has just qualified for the group stages of the Europa League, the first Irish team to make it to this level of any European competition.

It’s a big deal by the way. Rovers, whose squad was put together for less than $1 million, could earn close to $3 million in prize money just for getting this far in the new version of the old UEFA Cup.

Not alone have they injected real pride into Irish club football, they have given the sporting nation a major boost ahead of this week’s vital European Championship matches against Slovakia and Russia.

O’Neill is now the hottest property in soccer management in this part of the world. His name has been linked with everything from the Northern Ireland job to a return to the Scottish game he graced with Hibs as a player.

Such speculation won’t faze the Ulster man. He’s well used to having his name linked with all sorts of headlines -- not least of the George Best variety.

When O’Neill was a teenager he signed for Newcastle from Coleraine. He scored a hat-trick the night he made his debut for the Newcastle United reserve team, and the local papers dubbed Michael the new George Best.

Regular readers will know that I know this because I was there that night. At the time I was working as the Newcastle correspondent for the Sunderland Echo, a reporter behind enemy lines as far as the Echo’s own readership was concerned.

The New George Best was, I can admit now, a lazy line to peddle out. It was too obvious, too easy and too difficult to live up to for a player whose career was constantly blighted by injury.

Michael had great talent. There was never any doubt about that.

He also had a great brain, on and off the field.  That was something that stood to him as a player, and it is something that is standing to him now as a manager.

To go to Belgrade and knock Partizan out of the Europa League was a major achievement for Rovers, especially after a 1-1 draw in the home leg in Tallaght a week earlier.

The Hoops didn’t get the winner, in a 3-2 aggregate scoreline, until the second half of extra-time last Thursday night when Stephen O’Donnell calmly scored from the penalty spot.

But they deserved that goal and they deserved the win that puts them in against Spurs, Rubin Kazan of Russia and PAOK of Greece in the group stages of the Europa League.

It doesn’t matter what happens now. Michael O’Neill and Shamrock Rovers have given Irish football something to shout about last week, and now the onus is on Giovanni Trapattoni, et al to follow suit against Slovakia and Russia in the coming days.

And who knows what will happen if Rovers and Ireland celebrate a European double this season. They might just write a musical about it!

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