Another great League of Ireland night in Europe as Shamrock Rovers guarantee group stage football in Skopje

A historic night for Shamrock Rovers, but it was not a stressful one. That’s the highest compliment that can be paid to their application.

andmark victories for League of Ireland clubs generally involve bodies being thrown on the line in a close-run affair that could have swung either way.

But while there was fortune in the ricochet off a Shkupi defender that gave Stephen Bradley’s side a second-half lead on the night and an unassailable advantage overall, they did not rely on luck to negotiate this test.

The better side won and they did so comfortably to progress to a Europa League playoff and a crack at Ferencvaros safe in the knowledge that if they fall short against the Hungarian top dogs, they’ll be guaranteed a spot in the Europa Conference League and €3.3m in prize money.

It’s a sweet moment for Bradley and his staff, for this is what they have been working towards since a sloppy defeat to Flora Tallinn of Estonia 12 months ago.

They had to stew over that with a quiet determination to put it right and this was a mature and controlled display which earns this dressing room a chance to go on the type of adventure previously enjoyed by Rovers in 2011 and Dundalk in 2016 and 2020.

After a second-half struggle in Tallaght last week, Rovers travelled to Skopje expecting an early barrage from their hosts and that was true to an extent but it only really lasted for two minutes. Corners were conceded in a frantic opening where it temporarily looked as though Shkupi might have another gear on their own patch. But once the Hoops were able to take a breath, they grew into the game.

Bradley’s tactical plan was smart with Aaron Greene introduced next to Rory Gaffney in a front two. Greene’s pace gave Rovers an out if under pressure and stopped Shkupi from being able to really push forward and apply pressure as a team.

While their front options did try to make life difficult for the League of Ireland champions, space opened up when they moved the ball efficiently. In truth, it was the team with the lead to protect that created the better chances. Gaffney threatened early as the Shkupi defence parted, with Kristijan Naumovski doing enough to divert his shot onto the post.

The Shkupi netminder was busy again before the interval, making amends after his poor touch allowed Rovers to press high and win possession with Ronan Finn involved in paving the way for Richie Towell – who had missed an earlier chance – to get away a shot that was blocked off the line by Senghor before Naumovski denied Gaffney’s rebound.

Shkupi were hanging on. When they did have their moments, including a break that drew a foul from Finn that rules him out of next week’s first leg with Ferencvaros, the end product was lacking with Alan Mannus reasonably comfortable and new recruit Daniel Cleary unruffled in the heart of the defensive three.

The state of play was reflected by Shkupi making a treble switch at the break, it was already last throw of the dice territory. New arrival Kristijan Trapanovski could have announced himself, but his wild left footer over the bar from close range was a key moment. Shkupi were lucky to have eleven men on the pitch at that stage, with Senghor somehow avoiding a second yellow for lashing out at Dylan Watts but this was not the beginning of another Macedonian horror show for an Irish team.

Instead, Rovers sub Graham Burke made his presence felt and teed up Gaffney for the strike and the sweet deflection that carried the ball over Naumovski and put Rovers in dreamland.

That was game over, with the life taken out of Shkupi legs by the concession. Indeed, there was even a lingering sense that Rovers were able to make changes with Friday’s league game in Derry in mind rather than imminent fears of an unlikely comeback.

It was the replacements that put the game to bed with Burke, who was strolling around finding space, releasing teenage attacker Aidomo Emakhu, who was adjudged to be onside and found a way past Naumovski, a third European goal for the 18-year-old.

Sundat Adetunji pulled one back for Shkupi in time added on, but there wasn’t even a trace of celebration. They’ll have to battle the aviation picture in either Kosovo or Faroe Islands to keep their group stage hopes alive. Rovers can march on with a weight lifted from their shoulders.

Shkupi: Naumovski, Timovski (Demiri 79), Senghor, Margvelashvili, Sheji (Brdarovski 45); Alvarez, Lamane (Dzelil 45), Quevan; Georgiev (Kalanoski 79), Adetunji, Ali (Trapanovski 45)

Shamrock Rovers: Mannus, Hoare, Cleary, Grace; Finn (Gannon 68), O’Neill, Towell (Burke 62), Lyons (Farrugia 81); Watts, Gaffney (Kavanagh 68); Greene (Emakhu 81)

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