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euro pain Stephen Bradley rues costly Shamrock Rovers' blunders in Tallinn

League of Ireland champions left with mountain to climb after disastrous defensive display

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Aaron Greene of Shamrock Rovers has his effort blocked by Henrik Pürg of Flora Tallinn during the UEFA Europa Conference League play-off first leg. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Aaron Greene of Shamrock Rovers has his effort blocked by Henrik Pürg of Flora Tallinn during the UEFA Europa Conference League play-off first leg. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Aaron Greene of Shamrock Rovers has his effort blocked by Henrik Pürg of Flora Tallinn during the UEFA Europa Conference League play-off first leg. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

A post-match Zoom press conference is probably the last thing Stephen Bradley needed after a shocking ending to a game of such significance.

But it also provided the Shamrock Rovers manager with a word to sum up what he had just witnessed.

When a reporter suggested that ‘madcap’ might be an appropriate description of the first leg of the Europa Conference League play-off, especially when it came to his side’s defending, the manager took no offence.

“I think you have summed it up,” he said. “We gave away four terrible goals and if you do that at any level, especially this level, you don’t deserve to win the game. We made mistakes I haven’t seen this team make before.”

And they picked a disastrous time to do it. This wasn’t just any old match.

With close to €3m available to the victors as well as the opportunities and excitement that group stage football can bring, the League of Ireland champions picked the worst possible time to lose composure without the ball.

They were picked apart frequently by an Estonian side seeking to make history by becoming their league’s first ever group-stage qualifier, yet the reason that the conclusion was so infuriating for the away side is that they looked like they were about to emerge from an below par display with a reasonable outcome when a Liam Scales header narrowed the deficit to one goal with four minutes remaining.

But that error-strewn performance was summed up by Rovers conceding from the restart to leave themselves needing a comprehensive victory on Irish soil in seven days’ time. “We’re not a team that concedes goals and especially not goals like that,” said Bradley.

Flora will find that hard to believe on this evidence, for it was far too easy for them at times.

Bradley did say beforehand that Flora were superior to the Slovan Bratislava side that knocked them out of the Champions League, yet Rovers helped to make them look good.

After half an hour, it was looking grim for the guests. Flora were living up to their reputation as a team that is at their most dangerous just after their opponents have lost the ball, scoring twice from situations where Rovers gave it away and struggled to recover.

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Bradley had introduced Seán Hoare onto the left of the back three in place of the injured Lee Grace, a berth that wouldn’t necessarily be his natural home, but there was a lack of cohesion between the defence and the midfield as white shirts found gaps.

Bradley raised a few eyebrows by stating that Hoare’s performance was one of the best he’d seen from an Irish player in Europe.

“I thought he was outstanding,” said Bradley, who was clearly apportioning blame elsewhere for the concessions, although he admitted the last goal was on Hoare.

Opposition League of Ireland managers have spoken of how Rovers do give teams a chance by committing bodies, yet it’s a matter of being able to exploit it – and Flora were adept at that.

Their early breakthrough came from an intercepted Joey O’Brien clearance with Flora executing three quick passes, culminating with 37-year-old Konstantin Vassiljev teeing up Sergei Zenjov who had slipped in between Hoare and backtracking left wing-back Scales and finished first time.

Flora’s squad is entirely composed of Estonians, with 11 players in the most recent national squad. Vassiljev is the captain of both teams and a bit of a local hero; he scored in the Euro 2012 play-off against Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland.

He had a more enjoyable first half than Rovers old-timer O’Brien, although the origins of the next Flora strike came on the other side with lone striker in a 4-4-1-1 Rauno Sappinen breaking the defensive line.

O’Brien came across to try and head off his advance but the clever Sappinen checked back and picked out the unmarked Martin Miller who did the rest.

Rovers desperately needed to regroup and a good spell followed. The agony of a Dylan Watts miss was forgotten when the subsequent corner instigated an almighty scramble, with Graham Burke lurking at the edge of the box and displaying a calm head to find the top corner.

Alas, the pattern of the second half was similar with Hoops’ spells in Estonian territory followed by a much more incisive counter with Vassiljev dropping into pockets and Rovers unsure of who should take responsibility.

Sappinen restored Flora’s cushion with 15 minutes remaining and it was fair to say it was coming as the front man had already missed two gilt-edged opportunities – although Mannus did make a fine stop from the first of them.

However, the visiting netminder was sluggish when dealing with a snapshot from Zenjov and Sappinen reacted quickest to convert.

Bradley had sprung Danny Mandroiu from the bench by this point and he struck the post from a tidy move. Frustration was evident in Rovers faces, but that turned to a combination of joy and relief when a period of pressure resulted in a looping Scales header finding the target.

“Take it back to Tallaght 3-2 and you’re really, really happy,” said Bradley, discussing the nightmare that came next. “You’re telling the players to be nice and calm, be relaxed.”

From the kick-off, though, Rovers shirts were drawn to the ball as Sappinen gave Hoare the runaround and spotted the inrushing Miller, almost a rerun of his earlier strike with the 23-year-old free to pick his spot.

It could prove to be a seriously costly aberration.

Flora Tallinn – Igonen, Lilander, Purg (Tougjas 90), Seppik, Kallaste; Soomets; Zenjov, Vassiljev, Miller, Ojamaa; Sappinen (Alliku 89).

Shamrock Rovers – Mannus, O’Brien, Lopes, Hoare; Finn, Watts, O’Neill, Scales; Towell (Mandroiu 68), Burke; Gaffney (Greene 54).

Ref – Y Aranovskiy (Ukraine)

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