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Thursday 23 November 2017

Fight for Europa League glory beckons for old foes at Rovers

Shamrock Rovers v Mlada Boleslav Tallaght Stadium, KO 8.0

Shamrock Rovers’ Luke Byrne is fouled by Stjarnan’s Baldur Sigurðsson. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Shamrock Rovers’ Luke Byrne is fouled by Stjarnan’s Baldur Sigurðsson. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Dubliners Luke Byrne and Graham Burke spent their childhood years kicking lumps out of each other on the battlegrounds of the DDSL in their native city.

But the summer of 2017 is a summer of love between the pair as they look to help Shamrock Rovers kick on and move into the third qualifying round of the Europa League.

Rovers earned their place in the second round, and a cheque for €225,000, thanks to a 2-0 aggregate win over Icelandic side Stjarnan in the last round, but everyone at the club knows that tonight's opponents in the first leg at Tallaght Stadium, Czech outfit Mlada Boleslav, will offer more of a fight than Stjarnan did.

But there was a time when all that two of this Rovers side could do was fight, battles between Burke's Belvedere team when Byrne played for St Kevin's Boys or Home Farm.

"We joke about, we used to get sent off all the time for kicking each other. Now the two of us are best mates, so it's great to finally have him on my team," says Rovers defender Byrne of Burke.

"I remember his last game before he went to Aston Villa, his uncle Wayne had to take him off because me and him were going to kill each other

"It was Kevin's v Belvo - we were the most competitive teams. I didn't even play at the back at the time but I always managed to find him and kick him.

"We were on a DDSL trip away to South Africa and we didn't particularly like each other. In training we used to have to be put on the same team and we'd still fight. We really didn't like each other," added Byrne.

Burke also recalls those rows.

"When we were schoolboy players we didn't see eye to eye with each other, we used to kick each other," says Burke, who scored the winner for Rovers in the home leg against Stjarnan.

Kick

"The relationship we had back then, he used to always try to get into my head and most of the time it would, and I used to try to kick him all the time. But we get on great now."

Rovers are in confident mood, on the back of their 2-0 aggregate win over Stjarnan in the last round, a rare case of a League of Ireland side getting two wins and two clean sheets in a tie.

But the omens are not on their side: since the break-up of Czechoslovakia, Irish clubs have played six games against Czech opposition, lost all six and scored just one goal.

But while they are a decent side, Mlada Boleslav are not on the same level as the Slavia Prague team which destroyed Cork City 6-0 back in 1994.

This is only their eighth European campaign and recently they have been knocked out by opposition from Cyprus, Norway and Macedonia; their stand-out player defender and former Czech international Marek Matejovsky, familiar to some from his spell with Reading.

The name of their coach, Dusan Uhrin, will also ring a bell for some but he's not the man who managed the Czech Republic side at Euro '96 but his much-travelled son, who has coached in Romania, Cyprus, Georgia and Belarus.

Rovers coach Stephen McPhail knows that Mlada Boleslav are are step up in class from their Icelandic opponents last time around, but fitness is a factor in the Hoops' favour as the Czechs are only in pre-season mode.

"We are well into our season so our fitness levels should be better than theirs, it's a big advantage if you are a player so we have to try and impose ourselves on them," says McPhail.

"We need to take the game to them, it's about being fearless. They are an attacking threat, they can score goals and we've to be aware of that."

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