Shamrock Rovers FC may be enjoying their debut campaign in the UEFA Europa League group stage but the Dublin club already have their sights set on next season's UEFA Champions League after retaining the Irish Premier Division title.
Rovers secured successive championships for the first time since 1987 thanks to Tuesday night's 2-1 win at University College Dublin AFC in their penultimate match. They will be presented with the trophy after their final fixture at home to Galway United FC on Friday.
However, it was not until four minutes into added time against UCD that Dean Kelly scored the clinching goal that established an unbridgeable four-point gap between Rovers and second-placed Sligo Rovers FC. "Their character is not in question, they have shown that in European games, and at times they've not had the credit they deserved domestically," said manager Michael O'Neill.
"They have topped the table for something like 27 weeks so they are worthy champions over the season. It's been a great season for us. We're league champions, we won the all-Ireland title and we became the first Irish club to reach the group stage of a UEFA competition. Now we can try again in the UEFA Champions League next season."
Even though the Tallaght-based Hoops have four games left – including UEFA Europa League Group A tests against PAOK FC, FC Rubin Kazan and Tottenham Hotspur FC – thoughts have turned to the longer term, with contract extensions for O'Neill and key players high on the agenda. Though defender Enda Stevens is certain to leave having signed a pre-contract agreement with Aston Villa FC, O'Neill hopes to retain the core of his squad.
"In relation to my own contract, I said to the board that we'd sit down once the domestic season was over and get something in place," said the 42-year-old former Northern Ireland midfielder. "The board have given me assurances so hopefully in the next few weeks we will get something sorted.
"We will aim to keep the majority of the squad. We want to keep progressing, we have done a lot of good things this season. We've seen the likes of Enda Stevens come to the club and now have the chance to go and play for an English Premier League club.
"We would like to continue to develop our own players and bring players here. Players recognise this as a real stepping stone, not just to having a great career in Ireland but to bigger and better things."
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