Finishing his playing days with seven Premier Division winners’ medals to his name as well as the 2001/02 PFAI Players’ Player of the Year gong, Owen Heary is rightly considered a League of Ireland legend.
But it wasn’t just domestically where he proved himself as a fine defender, the Dubliner also put it up to some stellar opposition in Europe, including the likes of Hajduk Split, Deportivo de La Coruna and Lille.
Now in charge of his old club Shelbourne following spells in the hot seat at Bohemians – a club where he also has many fond memories as a player – and Sligo Rovers, the 40-year-old still recollects with fondness his days playing in Europe against some of the giants mentioned above.
However, speaking to Pundit Arena’s Irish football podcast The Mixer, he firstly professed the importance of Irish sides doing well in Europe every summer.
“I honestly think it’s massive because you’re playing against the top teams in Europe from whatever country they come from.
“I was disappointed seeing Derry’s result [a 10-2 aggregate loss toMidtjylland]. I thought those days were gone where [LOI] teams get hammered in Europe. I was listening to Kenny Shiels saying there were a few players he couldn’t get registered in time – maybe things have to change in that way.
“But it was good to see Shamrock Rovers getting through, it’s good to see Cork getting through and hopefully Dundalk can get a result and get through.
“Everyone looks at European games. We all compete against the best players from other countries. Fans who aren’t fans of our league but follow English teams will still have an interest and see how Irish clubs do in Europe. The more we can get through rounds, which Dundalk did last year, the more buzz there is around the league, the more chance there is of sponsorship, of fans coming to games.
“It’s very important that we get through at least a couple of rounds and see where it takes us but Rovers have a difficult one now and the same with Cork so it will be interesting to see how far we can get as teams this year in Europe.”
While we wait with bated breath to see just how Rovers, City and Dundalk fare in Europe, Heary knows all too well the special memories which come of upsetting the apple cart in Europe.
In his prime with Shelbourne in 2004, a side which included former Cameroon international Joseph N’Do and current Ireland international Wes Hoolahan, Heary and his teammates shocked Deportivo de La Coruna, holding them to a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the Champions League third qualifying round before ultimately losing out 3-0 in the second.
The final result may not have gone their way but these kinds of experiences mean the former Home Farm man has many fond memories from his time playing on the continent.
“I loved playing in Europe, absolutely loved it. When you’re going into games against European teams you think of the opposition as – if you’re playing a team from Denmark [for example] you think of the outside left – this is the best outside left in Denmark that you’re competing against so it’s a challenge and it’s one that you want to keep proving yourself year in, year out in; that you’re as good as them. I think every player wants to play in Europe.
“I had some great opportunities playing in Europe against some good teams. When we played Deportivo, Pat Fenlon told me the week before that [Albert] Luque might not be in the squad because Real Madrid had made a £18 million bid for him.
“£18m at that time was massive money but the following week Pat says he’s travelled so you’re thinking you’re playing against one of the best players in Spain. If Real Madrid are looking at him it’s a high, high level, but it was a challenge and I think it’s something that every player who plays in Europe wants to do: compete against the best players and prove that you’re worthy of being on the same pitch and try and prove to people that you can beat these teams and these players.”
You can listen to the full interview with Owen below as well as our analysis of this weekend and last weekend’s League of Ireland action.
We also discuss the pros and cons of money-spinning mid-season friendlies and look ahead to what is a huge week in Europe for Irish clubs.
Rob Lyons, Pundit Arena