Continental Tyres Women's National League, General football, Ireland, League of Ireland, UEFA Women's Champions League, Women's football

Maher: preparation is key to European success

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.

Experience

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.”

Preparations

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.”

Opposition

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.”

Build-up

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.”

Enjoy it

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.

Andy Donlan

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].

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FAI Cup, General football, Ireland, League of Ireland, Stephen Kenny, UEFA Cup

Stephen Kenny reveals he was asked to sign his successor at Bohs

Friday 28 July 2004 marks a strange anniversary of sorts. On this day, 13 years ago, Stephen Kenny was sacked as manager of Bohemian Football Club, following their elimination from the UEFA Cup at the hands of Levadia Tallinn. Kenny recently made a startling revelation about the circumstances in the lead up to the tie and ultimately his departure from the club.

Earlier this year, he sat down with Eamon Dunphy for a revealing, in-depth and at times emotional interview for, The Stand. During the interview, Kenny revealed. “At the time, I got asked… I sorta never revealed this. It was suggested to me that I sign Gareth Farrelly – who played with Everton and Bolton – just to play in the European game.”

Mixed success

During Kenny’s period at Bohemians, the club had achieved mixed success in their battle with Shelbourne to establish themselves as top dog. He and the club invested heavily in top players in a bid to re-invigorate the club after the indifferent tenure of Pete Mahon, following the euphoria of the Roddy Collins era in Phibsborough. Kenny’s reign yielded the league title in 2002/03 – at the home of the champions – a famous European victory over Bate Borisov, but also crushing defeats to an already relegated Dundalk in 2002 FAI Cup final and to Levadia Tallinn in the UEFA Cup first qualifying round.

In the UEFA Cup tie, Bohs were expected to progress, having blasted their way past similar opposition in Bate Borisov in the previous years’ Champions League. They had also comfortably seen-off Levadia at the same stage in the Champions League qualifiers in 2001 – when they were named Levadia Maardu. In addition, Bohs had secured a solid first leg goalless draw in Tallinn. Although strangely, Ken Oman, who produced a commanding man of the match performance at the heart of the Bohs defence in that draw, completed the second leg as an unused substitute, whilst Colin Hawkins, who missed the first leg through injury, started at centre half.

Levadia, having weathered a Bohs storm, hit on the counter-attack and ruthless punished Hawkins’ lack of sharpness, rounding out a 3-1 victory in Dublin. Bohs had never lead in the tie. The catastrophic collapse – from the first leg to the second – marked the only time a League of Ireland side had succumbed to Estonian opposition, in the five ties and ten games to-date.

That went against everything I was about

On the build-up to the tie, Kenny went on to reveal his response to the suggestion of signing and playing Farrelly. “Well, I said, ‘This team had won the league for me and I’ve got really good players here who’ve won everything, winning the league and doing really well’. They said he’s not going to play in the league, if you just sign him for those couple of games, you know? That went against everything I was about really. I said, ‘I wasn’t going to do that’. So we lost the game and they made Gareth manager. That’s what happened really, Gareth came in as manager immediately after that.”

In fact, it was one month later when Farrelly took the reins, after caretaker, Gary Howlett had guided Bohs to two league draws and an FAI Cup third round exit to Kildare County. Farrelly watched his first game from the stands, as Bohs trailed arch-rivals Shamrock Rovers 0-1 at half time in Dalymount. Farrelly’s inspired team talk saw his team rip into Rovers, twice breaching their rearguard in the first three minutes of the second half, eventually running out 3-2 victors.

Farrelly, 28, was far and away the league’s youngest manager at the time. Stephen Kenny, ironically, holds the record for being the league’s youngest manager, when he took over at Longford Town, aged 26.

Forgettable period

In the main, Farrelly’s period at Bohs was a forgettable one, for footballing and off-the-pitch reasons. It was blighted by cut-backs to the playing budget, a point’s deduction for fielding a suspended player, the release of top-scorer Dominic Foley in dispute over payment and towards the end, divisive supporter protests.

Thus, two years and two days after the ecstasy of that 3-2 victory over Shamrock Rovers, Farrelly suffered the indignity of missing a penalty at a crucial stage of an FAI Cup replay at home to the same opposition – who were then a First Division club. Bohs and Farrelly parted ways the following day.

Decline

Stephen Kenny’s exit had marked the beginning of the decline of Bohemian Football Club, although Pat Fenlon’s trophy-laden four-year spell re-invigorated the club, it was all built on a mountain of debt and tied-up in a property deal, which collapsed in the economic downturn. In 2015, Bohs finally resolved major debt issues, sold Dalymount Park to Dublin City Council and unveiled a five-year strategic plan, placing the club back at the heart of her surrounding communities.

Stephen Kenny who had refused to comprise on his guiding principles when asked to parachute Farrelly into the team for the big European games, may have lost out in 2004. However, those uncompromising, core footballing principles brought him unparalleled success with Dundalk in bigger European games, twelve years later. He may find it tough to talk about now, but that incident laid the foundations for subsequent success and deserved praise from all quarters.

Andy Donlan

Listen to Eamon Dunphy’s fascinating interview on Stephen Kenny’s career to-date, in its entirety on SoundCloud.

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