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Shamrock Rovers’ Graham Burke aiming to create a new set of European memories

Shamrock Rovers player Graham Burke. Photo: Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Daniel McDonnellIndependent.ie

The football world can be very small sometimes, even moreso in the picturesque surroundings of Molde.

Shamrock Rovers duo Jack Byrne and Dan Cleary were out for a stroll along the seafront here yesterday when they happened upon Ole Gunnar Solskjaer getting off a boat.

We haven’t heard from Solskjaer since his departure from Manchester United, but he lives in nearby Kristiansund and one of his children plays football in Alesund, a ferry ride from Molde. He’s left to his own devices by the locals in this tiny 25,000 population city, but was happy to stop and chat about tonight’s Europa Conference League game with the visiting players.

Until recently, Solskjaer was the most famous ex-Molde player on the global stage but he has been surpassed by a certain Erling Haaland. Indeed, it was during his second spell as Molde boss that Solskjaer signed Haaland, an important step in his journey towards Premier League domination at Manchester City.

Haaland’s latest Instagram post is with his new mate Jack Grealish, an unlikely bromance. Ten years ago, a member of the Shamrock Rovers dressing room was the top scorer in a team including Grealish which collected a European trophy.

Graham Burke isn’t expecting the nostalgic diversion. The Next Gen Series, an U-19 tournament for teams from 24 countries around Europe, was a short lived initiative that was usurped by the UEFA Youth League. The 2012/13 season was the final renewal and Burke scored a brace for the victorious Aston Villa side in the final in Lake Como, with Chelsea on the receiving end.

Ajax, Celtic, and Sporting Lisbon were amongst the teams that Burke, Grealish, Kilkenny lad Mikey Drennan and their colleagues saw off along the way.

“A brilliant experience,” reflects Burke, “We were travelling when we wouldn’t have done much of that. Staying in hotels. It was the first sort of experience of what we’re doing now.

“It was a big deal, a big occasion. Mikey had been the top scorer until he got injured. I was joint top scorer in the whole competition with Islam Feruz who was at Chelsea.”

Burke and Feruz scored seven goals apiece. The latter quit football at 24 to start his own clothing brand. For Burke, who turned 29 last month, there are occasional regrets about things he might have done differently but he knows that harder luck stories came out of his Villa dressing room.

The Dubliner could watch Grealish go on to become a £100m player and think about what might have been but it’s not quite his perspective. He doesn’t believe it would be healthy for his ‘head space’ to dwell on it.

“I knew I didn’t have the ability he had,” says Burke, a natural homebird who hasn’t stayed in touch with his Villa peers. “He was obviously unbelievable for Villa, he captained them at such a young age, went for an English world record fee and is now playing for the best footballing side in the world. But everyone’s careers moves differently. Would I look back and change some things? Maybe. But I love being at this football club. I’m happy with how things are for me.”

He points out that Grealish, Callum Robinson and Ipswich’s Janoi Donacien are the only ones active at what he would consider a higher level. Burke has done well for himself, even if a second coming with Preston didn’t work out. That followed a pair of Irish appearances under Martin O’Neill – a lifetime’s ambition realised.

Yet after he joined Preston, he watched Rovers embark on a Euro run and feared missing out on a group stage breakthrough. That’s why he is loving being involved now, although injuries have curtailed his year and grounded any hopes of an Irish recall.

“I know I’ve to be scoring goals at every week and playing at a really, really high level to get anywhere near that”, he stresses. “I wasn’t getting in at Preston and I knew I wanted to go home to Rovers, try and be successful in my home league and to play in a group stage competition.”

Burke has scored more goals in Europe than any other Rovers player. It’s a level that has always suited him. Molde would be a good place to reignite an old flame.

Molde v Shamrock Rovers, 5.45pm

Live Virgin Media Three/BT4


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