On a footballing time clock, video analysis, strength and conditioning and nutritional awareness are all relatively new concepts to a game that has existed since the mid-nineteenth century, though it feels like they’ve been around for some time.
These were alien concepts when Shaun Maher made his Bohemians debut in European competition, over twenty one years ago. He recalls, “My first game against Dinamo Minsk, the food was absolutely awful. I don’t think any of us ate anything before the game for two or three days”. When Bohs returned to the Belarussian capital seven years later led by Stephen Kenny, they arrived with their own chef, Irish football was evolving.
Nowadays, those concepts, coupled with logistical planning and meticulous preparation and organisation are key building blocks to European success. Maher’s Shelbourne Ladies players should have no food or preparation problems in central Belfast next week, where they visit to compete in the mini-tournament UEFA Women’s Champions League qualifiers.
Reliable footballing centre-half, Shaun Maher is now part of the coaching ticket at Shelbourne Ladies, who make their Champions League bow against Poland’s Medyk Konin on Tuesday on Crusader’s 4G artificial pitch in Seaview. Maher, who is head coach to Mark Leavy’s double champions, has a wealth of experience as a player at Champions League and UEFA Cup (Europa League) level. He competed in European competition with three different League of Ireland clubs, progressing through a round on three out of six occasions – only going out on away goals in his first tie and then losing by a 4-6 aggregate score to a slick-skilled Maritimo side in his final involvement, accounting for two of those exits. A more than decent achievement in League of Ireland terms, especially considering he was part of teams who beat Aberdeen and Kaiserslautern away and ran heavy-weights, Dinamo Kiev oh-so-close.
In reminiscing over European ties against the likes of Maritimo, Aberdeen, Kaiserslautern and Dinamo Kiev, he fondly recalls when a newly full-time Bohs were drawn to play Aberdeen in then UEFA Cup (now Europa League). If you are thinking his recollections are centred around his 81st minute bullet-headed equaliser in the historic away win, you’d be mistaken. Perhaps it is because he’s on the other side of the white wash in the technical area these days, but he recalls Bohs manager Roddy Collins’ approach to that first leg in Scotland.
“He was playing his own mind-games in the press with the Aberdeen manager – Ebbe Skovdahl. If I remember correctly, he was putting advertisements in the Aberdeen Echo looking for players two months beforehand, so you can see how much planning and detail has gone into that. It was a great distraction. It was really intelligent and clever. It took the pressure off the players completely. Thankfully it worked and it helped Bohs progress.”
Fast forward ten years to Maher’s final European game with Sporting Fingal, where preparations were drastically different for their visit to the archipelago of Madeira, located just off the Moroccan coast. “The last game in Madeira against Maritimo, we were there for nearly a week to acclimatise. When I travelled to Minsk with Bohs, it was three planes just to get to Minsk, where as in Mederia you’re in and out. That’s how things improved.”
He points to improvements for the women’s double winners, Shelbourne, as they now have modern tools at their disposal to assist in their Champions League preparations.
“There’s a lot more preparation now and things have progressed as time has gone on. That’s not having a go at anyone, that’s just how times have improved through the science of the sport, coaching philosophies and so on. Everyone else was preparing the same way at that time. For instance, nowadays, we’ve got match analysis and we’re able to see match opposition from months ago, to a couple of weeks ago. That wasn’t available back then, they had to make do with what they had.”
First up for Shels, they face the fancied Poles in a four-team round-robin group. Medyk Konin rule the roost domestically as they go in search of their fifth consecutive league title, having finished first or second in the last nine seasons. Indeed they hammered Wexford Youths 6-0 when they hosted the round-robin mini tournament at this stage in 2015 and are favourites to progress from this group, ahead of technical Finnish outfit, PK-35 Vantaa. Hosts Linfield complete the quartet.
“Medyk Konin win comfortably domestically most weeks, they’ve got talent all over the pitch, a bit of experience as well and they’re a threat. They’re full-time, they’re strong, they’ve strength in every area, but so have we. When time presents itself, we’ll try and exploit where our strengths are. We don’t want to over-awe the players either, in terms of what they’re facing but at the same time, you’ve got a responsibility to make them aware that things are going to be tough, but as long as we stick together and we stay physically and mentally strong throughout that period.”
The excitement in the Shels camp is palpable, with young squad members milling about the AUL Complex ahead of their training preparations on the all-weather surface near Dublin Airport. “The build-up is still very exciting. It’s new to all of the players and it’s new to me as a coach because I’ve been involved in European competitions as a player, but as a coach, it’s slightly different. There’s a lot more responsibility on you as opposed to a player where you are focused on yourself in your own role in the team. As a coach, with the rest of the staff, you’re trying to think of everybody and everything. Every box is ticked and every angle is covered. So there’s a lot more involved and it’s different. It’s not the same as a player, it’s a lot more enjoyable as a player, I wish I was a player, I wish I was still out there, but unfortunately that’s not going to happen.”
Whether Shels manage to progress or not, it won’t be for the lack of effort or preparation in a sport that’s underfunded and underdeveloped in comparison to some of their opponents next week. “I remember Derek Swan saying to me on my European debut, ‘Enjoy it, because it goes like that…’. That quick and if you don’t enjoy these opportunities, you’ll always regret it because they don’t come around every week or even every year.”
Shaun Maher may not be able to power home a bullet header or make a goal-saving tackle and you probably won’t see him place advertisements in the Belfast Telegraph looking for players. However, he may find that he’ll get more enjoyment through success of the players, having laid the foundations in their preparations, as Shelbourne Ladies look to conquer Belfast next week.
UEFA Women’s Champions League Qualifying Group 4 kicks off on Tuesday 22 August at 14:00 in Seaview, Belfast when Shelbourne Ladies play Medyk Konin [view full fixture list].