The world’s most expensive player making his debut for the world’s most famous team at a 3,000-capacity stadium in suburban Dublin. Football has a habit of producing the unlikely, and Shamrock Rovers-Real Madrid in July 2009 was one such occasion, an inconspicuous pre-season friendly catapulted into the global spotlight by the debut of Cristiano Ronaldo for the Spanish super club.
Over the following nine years, unprecedented success would follow, the world’s best defenders – Puyol, Van Dijk, Godín – all overcome by the Portuguese attacker. But it started with an altogether different type of challenger – semi-professional right-back Pat Flynn: “I was marking Ronaldo at corners that day. I remember in the changing room before the match, Michael O’Neill was reading out who we’d be marking. Ronaldo, Raúl, Benzema, Higuaín. He was reeling off the names and we all just burst out laughing. They were all world-class. It was an incredible and completely unexpected experience.”
To understand how Ronaldo ended up at Shamrock Rovers, you first need to understand where Real Madrid had been. For nearly a decade, Spain’s leading club had, by their own supreme standards, underachieved. Locked in a losing battle for domestic supremacy with a Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona, the club had watched with envy as their Catalan rivals had clinched the Champions League the previous May, consolidating their position as Europe’s leading team. It simply wouldn’t do.
Catalysed by the election of new club president Florentino Pérez in June, Real went on a spending spree, breaking the world transfer record. Twice. In a week.
First, Brazilian superstar Kaká arrived for £56m. Two days later, he was joined by Ronaldo, the centrepiece of Real’s rebuild. The Gálacticos 2.0 were here and scenes at the Portuguese forward’s unveiling confirmed the expectation that fans harboured towards their new-look team.
On a swelteringly hot day at the Santiago Bernabéu, 80,000 fans went wild as Ronaldo proudly declared the move to be the fulfilment of a boyhood dream. Now, the world waited for a first glimpse of the record-breaking signing in action.
But where would it come? Real’s historic home? Perhaps another esteemed European venue? Not quite. With pre-season plans long confirmed, Real headed to Ireland. So it was that Ronaldo joined his new teammates on a trip to the town of Tallaght where Shamrock Rovers awaited.
“There’d been a few rumblings in the camp that Madrid might be coming over for a training camp,” Flynn recalls. “Then it all took off. Ronaldo signed and, a few days later, a guy I worked with told me that the Madrid game had been confirmed. Then there was talk that it might be played at the Aviva Stadium, so it was a big surprise when it was finally announced that they’d be coming to Tallaght.”
Plans confirmed, the game instantly captured the nation’s attention, elevating Rovers to new heights in a country usually pre-occupied with other sports. “Around the League of Ireland you’d be lucky to get the back page of a newspaper, but now the press were all over us. We had Sky Sports News approaching the club for interviews. We’d never experienced anything like it before.”
Neither, unsurprisingly, had the town’s wider community. Though historically one of Ireland’s most successful clubs, Rovers had fallen on hard times, with a recent past clouded by serious financial problems, points deductions and, ultimately, relegation from the country’s top division in 2005.
Having returned at the first time of asking, a visit from the European heavyweights became the hottest ticket in town, proving so successful in re-engaging the local community that temporary stands were erected to increase the Tallaght Stadium capacity to 10,000. It still wasn’t enough, with the demand for tickets helping the more entrepreneurial members of the squad turn a tidy profit.
“I don’t think my mam had ever come to a game before but even she wanted a ticket. The players were given a set number and I think a few might have found their way on to eBay because the demand was so high. You had people ringing left, right and centre for them. Tallaght’s mainly a working-class area, so Real Madrid visiting was great for the town. You’d never have thought it would happen.”
The shock factor was enhanced by a comparison of Real and Rover’s respective placing in the global football ecosystem. While the Spaniards splashed cash on their marquee signing and a reported £180,000 weekly wage, the Irish club stood at the opposite end of the spectrum. Weekly remuneration ranged from €400-1,000 per week and an official semi-professional categorisation served to accentuate the divide.
Like many of his teammates, football served as a secondary source of income for Flynn, who juggled on-pitch commitments with a full-time job. For 90 minutes a week, he was a defender for the Hoops. Off the pitch, a sales job at Coca-Cola paid the bills.
“The few days before the game at work were mad. Everyone wanted to talk about the game. Sales were up that week I can tell you, I felt like a superstar,” remembers the defender. This superstar status, though, was juxtaposed by his method of transport to the game. “I like to keep busy, so I actually worked a full shift on the day of the game. I went from work to the game, so turned up in my company van. It was funny, Madrid arriving in their state-of-the-art bus and there was me parked next to them in my red Coca-Cola van.”
The gulf was as evident as it was unimportant because, for one night only, Shamrock Rovers would mix it with the big boys. Granted behind the scenes access to the elite, their pre-match excitement threatened to get the better of them. “We had a few teenagers in our side and they were poking their heads out of the dressing room door waiting for Madrid to arrive. Our assistant manager, Trevor Croly, pulled them back in and gave us all an earful. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘if you kick them, they bleed. They’re just normal people like you.'”
Croly’s advice took on special relevance for Flynn, who’d played up to his hard man image prior to the game and found himself at the centre of a media storm as a result. Asked whether he’d look to get Ronaldo’s shirt post-game, the defender had replied: “I’ll do more than that, I’ll look to get his blood on my boots.”
Eleven years on, the time for clarification has come. “That actually came from an interview for the matchday programme. It was a joke and I’d laughed at the end of it, but obviously that didn’t get put in. Next thing I knew, all the tabloids had a picture of Ronaldo looking pristine, shirt off and an eight-pack, next to me with blood all over my face and big bold letters saying I was coming to get him.” If further proof was needed of the new territory Rovers were entering, this was it.
In the end, 17 seconds was all it took. Seventeen seconds from the first whistle for Flynn to introduce himself to the world’s most expensive player. It started with a characteristically incisive dribble by the Real Madrid man, then an uncharacteristically loose touch. Then came Flynn with a solid, but fair, sliding tackle to leave Ronaldo in a heap. As he picked himself to his feet, he was greeted by a stadium-wide chorus of “who are ya?” Welcome to Tallaght, Cristiano.
“There’s a lot of Liverpool fans in Dublin, so they were happy to see an ex-United player bite the dust. It was brilliant for me and nice in retrospect to say I’ve tackled the greatest player in the world.”
The rest of the game passed with little incident, Rovers keeping their opponents at bay while Real banked valuable minutes on the road to full fitness. Cruelly, Karim Benzema scored with minutes remaining to snatch a dream draw from the Irish side, but what did Flynn learn from the experience and were there any surprises along the way?
“You just realise how big they all are physically. Even their smallest player, Lassana Diarra, was so tough to shake off the ball. In the tunnel before the game too, standing there beside them in their white kit, they’re very imposing. I reckon a lot of teams are beaten before they go out.”
Athletic ability aside, the humility of the Real Madrid squad has also lived long in Flynn’s memory. “Every single one of them was great after the game, but I hold Marcelo in particularly high regard. We were both subbed at half-time and chatted in the tunnel for a little bit, then I got his jersey. Two minutes later, I hear banging on our changing room door – it’s him and the kit man. I’m thinking they want the shirt back, but he was actually coming to ask for mine. I like to think he’s still got it somewhere. I tell my son it’s hanging above his fireplace.”
Wherever Flynn’s shirt now resides in Casa Marcelo, it will be in good company among a collection of Europe’s leading shirts, each one telling a different story of a triumphant 2010s for Real Madrid. They weren’t the only ones who enjoyed a good decade.
In the years following the friendly, Shamrock Rovers experienced an upturn of their own, stirred by that evening in Tallaght. “The first thing it did was engage more fans,” says Flynn. “They realised that this was a local team, jumped on it and have been with us ever since. It was massive for the squad too. The whole experience was excellent and, as a team, we wanted to make it happen more often. To do that, we realised we had to win leagues, so it drove us on.”
This new drive got Rovers where they wanted to go. In 2010 and 2011, the club won back-to-back League of Ireland titles, ensuring entry into the Europa League. After overcoming Bnei Yehuda Tel Aviv in the second qualifying round, another European giant awaited. This time, Rovers could cross Juventus off their list. “Real Madrid was good, but Juventus was incredible. It was a competitive match and we’d earned the right to be there which made it really special. We gave them three chances over the two legs and they took them all. That’s the difference.”
With a resume containing some impressive accomplishments, what does Flynn regard as his finest achievement? “I’d say that Juventus match was my number one moment. Like Madrid, they had a team full of superstars – Del Piero, Marchisio, Bonucci – and the away leg was played in front of about 30,000 fans. I tell people my career highlight was standing in a wall while Del Piero scored a free-kick against us … my only regret is that I didn’t go and celebrate with him.”
Now retired, Flynn retains links with Shamrock Rovers as a coach of their under-13 team. “I never thought I’d get into coaching but I love it. Youth players used to have their sights set on going to England, but now they’re focused on making it to the Rovers first team, maybe the games against Madrid and Juventus had something to do with that. They all just want to play and learn.”
Flynn, of course, is happy to teach them. “We’ll be doing shooting before training and I’ll tell them, ‘Have a look at this lads, this is how Ronaldo kicks it … and I know this because I played against him.’ I think they’re all probably a bit sick of hearing it by now.”
As for Ronaldo, his stature in the global game continued to grow throughout his tenure with Real Madrid. While Rovers took exploratory steps on the continent, Los Blancos enjoyed a European odyssey of their own, winning four Champions Leagues over the next ten years. The Portuguese star led the way, his individual brilliance acknowledged with four Ballon d’Or awards during his time with the club.
When you see what he went on to achieve, it is easy to forget where it all started – the world’s most expensive player, making his debut for the world’s most famous team at a semi-professional stadium in suburban Dublin.
By Pat McColgan @patmccolgan