Postcard from Iceland - the land of fire, ice & a precious Euro away win

Sun, Jul 02 2017

For Shamrock Rovers it was a journey to the land of fire and ice and what would be a precious first leg away win in the Europa League First Qualifying Round. The Hoops take a 1-0 lead back to Tallaght for the conclusion of the tie next week against Icelandic side Stjarnan, with Mlada Boleslav from the Czech Republic awaiting the winners.


From a selfish point of view for this writer, this match was a chance to travel to Iceland; a place I’ve wanted to visit for years but had been essentially putting off till a favourable European draw gave me the opportunity!


Shamrock Rovers organised a club charter to Iceland - with around 120 players, team officials and a couple of journalists – while approximately 50 or so fans travelled separately mostly using Iceland's low cost airline WOW which operates transatlantic flights stopping in Iceland. Low cost airline websites got plenty of hits from Rovers, Cork City, Derry City and Dundalk fans after the European fixture draw was made in mid-June.


My WOW flight out on Wednesday morning had a lot of Americans travelling through Iceland back to the land of Trump. On arrival as a visitor it was easy to get orientated to Reykjavik by visiting the landmark Hallgrimskirja with the church tower offering a panoramic view of the world’s most northerly capital city.


I took a groundhopping wander up to see KR's ground where Cork City played two years ago. It wasn't a case of follow the floodlights to the ground though. Lights aren't deemed necessary at the stadium for their short domestic league season. With matches played just below the Arctic Circle, in the height of summer the sun doesn't set. KR’s ground was the venue for the other Europa League tie with Finnish side SJK also playing in the city on Thursday.


There was a price war between the various Irish bars on Wednesday night vying for the travelling Rovers support but we went with the Lebowski Bar to watch Portugal's pathetic penalty shoot out in the Confederation Cup against Chile. It was a good venue with a ‘rug that really tied the room together.’


On Thursday morning the Rovers squad took a short stroll from their hotel to the hill top panorama Oskjuhlid. Other than the scenic drive across the barren treeless tundra through the lava fields from Keflavik airport to the city, this is as much sightseeing as the squad will do. There was no whale watching or trips around the famous Golden Circle on their travel agenda.


Ahead of the match, both sets of fans mingled at the meet up point close to Stjarnan's Stjornuvollur stadium - a short bus ride from Reykjavik city centre. Their one sided ground, with its 3G synthetic pitch, was close to its 1,000 capacity come kick off and included the Icelandic Prime Minister. Maybe President Michael D Higgins will be putting another trip to Tallaght in his official diary for next week’s second leg.


Both teams lined up to be introduced to the dignitaries which included the Rovers chairman Jonathan Roche who responded to the "Roachie, Roachie, give us a wave" chant from the away section that also included Rovers director Ray Wilson. Living in Australia, Wilson, who last year organised a €1.5m investment into the club, was back in Europe to coincide with Rovers’ European campaign.


12 months ago the Hoops had been eliminated from Europe after a 2-0 first leg defeat at home and a 1-1 second leg draw in Finland against RoPS Rovaniemi. Only three players (Gary Shaw, Simon Madden and Brandon Miele) from that match were in the Thursday’s starting line up and it would be one of them, Shaw, who would score the match winner on the night.


However it was a Hoops player who has returned to Rovers this season who was my man of the match. Making his 30th European appearance, Ronan Finn ran the show for Rovers. He had been part of the squad in Tallaght under Michael O'Neil's who qualified for the 2011 Europa League. Finn’s appearance in Iceland gave him the seventh highest number of appearances in Europe for a League of Ireland player (the only current active player with more is Dundalk’s Gary Rogers).


Finn, alongside Ryan Connolly, dictated the play in the middle of the park as Rovers looked to move the ball out from the back and stretch the visitors throughout the game. Twice in the match Finn went close only to be denied by Stjarnan 'keeper Haraldur Bjornsson.


However the Hoops took a lead into half time when Bjornsson made a mess of a corner from Miele and Shaw was on had to tuck the ball away after David Webster had gone close. 


Rovers couldn't get another goal in the second half but stood firm keeping a clean sheet, with the biggest scare coming from Josef Joseffson’s effort. Goalkeeper Tomer Chencinski, who up until this point had only had to come for a couple of crosses, pulled off a top drawer diving save low to his left to push a ball that seemed destined for the bottom corner around the post. 


Up until this trip to Iceland, I’d travelled to a dozen Shamrock Rovers European away games and prior to this had only seen one win (the extra time victory in Belgrade) so these wins don’t come around too often. This was only Rovers’ seventh away victory in the 26 seasons they have competed in Europe – and it was the landmark 100th win for League of Ireland sides in Europe.


The Rovers players know that is in only half way in the tie but there was still a good celebration in front of the jubilant Rovers supporters at the final whistle. With Cork City also bringing back a lead from their first leg (although with an additional away goal), there is optimism that there will be two League of Ireland sides going into the second round.


The players and fans on the charter headed straight to the airport after the match with attention drawing back to domestic action and a trip to Sligo on Sunday. The remaining Rovers fans headed back to Reykjavik and for some of us a few more days to travel around Iceland under the midnight sun.