Macdara Ferris reports from Nicosia
Having spent much of this week in Cyprus, both north and south of the UN controlled buffer zone that splits the island, it is easy to drop into a certain style of language when talking about last Thursday’s Shamrock Rovers Europa League qualifier against Apollon Limassol.
We had the police checks, the buffer zone splitting the rivals and a green line that needed to be negotiated – and that was just an away supporter cheering on the green line of Shamrock Rovers players in the GSP Stadium on Thursday evening from behind the police tape separating the home and away fans.
This was my first trip to Cyprus but not the first for Shamrock Rovers. They played at the old GSP Stadium eliminating APOEL Nicosia 3-0 on aggregate from the European Cup Winners Cup in 1978 and the Hoops played Omonia Nicosia in the 1987 European Cup in the Makario Stadium.
On match day ahead of Rovers’ Europa League second qualifying round second leg against Apollon, there was some time for a spot of groundhopping to see those two venues. The only drama played out these days where Rovers took on APOEL in 1978 is from the theatre located on part of the site of the demolished GSP stadium. A section of the turnstiles and ticket office are all that is left of the former national stadium on a site which is also now used as a city centre carpark.
The Hoops took on Omonia in the Makario Stadium in the south west of the city. It is a classic open bowl stadium with four massive floodlights and after a bit of negotiation at the gate we were able to wander around the venue. The stadium is used by some second division clubs in Cyprus including PAEEK with Vinny Faherty lining out their last season.
The UN controlled buffer zone between Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus runs right through Nicosia. Walking along the south of the border, you can see little lanes ways that are blocked off by barbed wire, drums and sandbags, with a number of watch towers manned by UN troops separating the Cypriot and Turkish parts of the Ireland. Many of the buildings adjacent to the green line are boarded up, empty since the Turkish occupation in 1974. There are a couple of checkpoints where you can pass through first a Cypriot police check and then a Turkish to go north of the border through the no-mans land and vice-versa on your return.
Among the Irish supporting Shamrock Rovers on Thursday night, were the 150 or so travelling Hoops supporters, the Irish Ambassador to Cyprus Deirdre Ní Fhallúin and some Irish security personnel who work with the UN along the green line.
With it being a 90km drive for Apollon fans to travel to Limassol for the match and the ID card system that is required to purchase tickets, it makes for a sparse attendance in the Cypriot National Stadium on the night. The Rovers supporters were placed high up in the West Stand, and visible to our left is a massive Turkish Republic of Cyprus flag that is lit up on the Kyrenia Mountain in the north of Cyprus.
We are underway in Cyprus pic.twitter.com/CrcL4JvpKz— Macdara Ferris (@macdarabueller) August 1, 2019
The travelling away support are in fine voice, cheering on their team from the start with Stephen Bradley’s side carrying a 2-1 first leg lead into the second leg. The home side in the 30 degree heat pressed the Hoops hard in the first half forcing them into uncharacteristic errors and grabbed the advantage in the tie with an 18th goal. Rovers were lucky to be only trailing by that solitary goal at half time but stepped it up in the second half.
There was a crazy five minute spell just after the hour mark. Attila Szalai scored Apollon’s second and chasing the game Bradley looked to bring on Dan Carr as it seemed Aaron Greene was set to come off.
However an altercation with Sean Kavanagh that Fotios Papoulis got involved with saw Kavanagh get yellow and the Apollon captain sent off. With Rovers looking to rejig things with the extra-man, the Carr sub was delayed and that allowed Greene to score as good a European goal as you are likely to see. Jack Byrne created it with his sixth assist in Europe this season but Greene still had lots to do, turning his man and letting fly with a shot worthy of a military missile analogy if you were that way inclined.
The momentum swung in Rovers’ favour and for me it felt like a similar hot and sultry night for the Hoops in Europe as their famous 2-1 extra-time away win in Belgrade back in 2011. However, another red card, this time for Lee Grace, helped the home team get back into the game.
For the second consecutive season, Rovers would take quality opposition to extra-time away from home in the Europa League qualifiers only to lose out. Seven minutes after Danish referee Micahel Tykggard gave Grace the red, Spaniard Adrian Sardinero grabbed what would turn out to be the winner for the team who have made the group stages of the Europa League in the last two seasons.
The Hoops had a couple of late chances with teenager Thomas Oluwa, making just his third appearance for the first team, coming within inches of netting a goal that would have taken Rovers through to take on Austria Vienna next week but it wasn’t to be. The Shamrock Rovers European adventure had come to an end for this season.
So close but... pic.twitter.com/t5d6C3DjQd— Macdara Ferris (@macdarabueller) August 1, 2019