Sives spurred on by Hearts’ London show

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Just four weeks after watching his beloved Hearts salvage some pride with a goalless draw at White Hart Lane following a 5-0 reverse against Tottenham at Tynecastle, Craig Sives would tonight “bite your hand off” for a similar stalemate in North London.

Craig Sives would tonight “bite your hand off” for a similar stalemate in North London.

Sives, who was released by the Jambos in January 2009 after making two SPL starts, will be at the heart of the Shamrock Rovers defence as they take on Spurs in the second of their Europa League group matches.

The Dublin side, having conjured a surprise win over Serbian heavyweights Partizan Belgrade to qualify, were drawn to face their English counterparts as well as Greeks PAOK Salonika and Russian millionaires Rubin Kazan, losing 3-0 at home to the latter in their only match so far.

However, Sives says his team have nothing to fear against a Spurs side keen to post their first group victory after a goalless first match at PAOK.

“I’d bite your hand off right now for a 0-0,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult whatever team they put out. When they played Hearts [at White Hart Lance] they were already 5-0 up, but now they need three points on the board – it’s going to be tough. With our away performances in Europe, we don’t have anything to fear. Rubin Kazan showed two weeks ago that this type of football is on another level, really difficult. We can keep the ball as well as them, but their speed and accuracy of passing and finishing in the final third was unbelievable. Rubin Kazan bought a guy for £13 million in the weeks running up to the game – that shows you the difference straight away. It’s difficult to compete, especially when we’re part time.”

But, Sives, who was brought up in Slateford, is used to Shamrock having it tough – even in a domestic league they have dominated in recent seasons. “We have the best-run club in the country by a mile,” he said. “Everyone wants to play for us, and everyone raises their game slightly when they’re up against us.”

Juventus and Real Madrid have visited Tallaght Stadium, the home of Shamrock, in the last couple of years, and the experience of facing Europe’s elite will stand Sives and Co in good stead for the game tonight – as will the fact Rovers are up to pace in their domestic campaign due to the summer football partaken in Ireland.

“No doubt about it, summer football works to our advantage,” said Sives. “When we played Copenhagen, they’d just played one league game and I felt, especially over there in the last 20 minutes, we had the legs on them and should have taken something [Shamrock lost 1-0]. Partizan Belgrade was the same – I definitely felt we had the legs on them and we showed that when we scored late in the first leg to make it 1-1, then equalised in the second half and scored an extra-time winner in the return leg. Fitness wise we have the advantage, but technically these teams are fantastic.

“Playing in the summer is definitely something Scottish football should consider. Personally, I think they should go down that direction. However you’ve got to look at the Scottish Cup final – it’s traditionally in May but would you want to switch it to November when it’s freezing cold?

“Summer football makes complete sense to me – certainly it would help the Scottish teams in Europe. Celtic, Rangers, Hearts, and Dundee United, with 30-odd games under their belts when they’re going into a European campaign, this year especially, would do better. You’d also get better crowds in summer, but I don’t think it’ll happen . . .”

Sitting level on points with table-toppers Sligo Rovers in the League of Ireland Premier Division with Derry City in third place as the season enters its final few weeks, Shamrock have six games remaining – four at home, two away – and are favourites to retain the title. Their success, and the big games that have come with it, provides Sives with sufficient justification for his move to the Emerald Isle.

“I knew I’d have to drop a level if I was to start playing regularly but I’ve played against some big teams over here, which I didn’t really expect. Actually, I never felt I was stepping down a level – not at all – but what’s happened over the last two to three years has been unbelievable,” said the 25-year-old defender.

“Since I arrived, we’ve had a friendly against Real Madrid, been unlucky not to win the league in my first year when we weren’t expected to do anything that year, then in 2010 we were expected to challenge Bohemians and got over the line. This year, with Sporting Fingal going bust and Bohemians losing a lot of their players due to financial reasons, we had the biggest squad and were expected to run away with it. But Sligo Rovers have a fantastic team and Derry City have good young players.”

Sives is not the only example of one whose career had stagnated in Scotland but has been revived by a move to Irish football. His team-mate Garry Twigg had started his professional career with Derby County and made his debut in a Premiership match against Sunderland. Seven years later, he found himself in the relative wilderness of the Scottish Second Division with Brechin City before following manager Michael O’Neill from Angus to Shamrock and European football. “Twiggy has been a revelation: he’s not far off 60 goals in three seasons, which is a fantastic record for any striker especially when you consider he missed a few games to injury. We paid only £15,000 for him, too – he’s the only player we’ve bought in the last three years – all the rest have been free transfers. So, to get to this stage of European competition has been a great achievement.”

Indeed, Shamrock became the first Irish club to qualify for the group stages of the Europa League, a penalty from former Falkirk midfielder Stephen O’Donnell, one of a significant SPL diaspora at the club, proving the winner against Partizan Belgrade. Ex-Dundee United and Motherwell man Jim Paterson cut short a career in English football to move to Shamrock, and the club’s manager is former Hibs man O’Neill.

“He wants to play football in the right way passing it from the back, which makes it enjoyable to play in the games,” Sives said of O’Neill. “I think he’s been linked with the Hibs job a few times and a couple of other jobs in Scotland, as well as the Northern Ireland job. It’s only a matter of time before he gets another job.”

His experience has been so positive that the dyed-in-the-wool Jambo, who held a season ticket at Tynecastle from the age of four until he settled in Ireland two years ago, has no desire to return to his hometown or Scotland any time soon.

“I’m not really thinking about that just now,” he said. “My contract runs out after the last European group game on December 15 [against Spurs at home], but there’s been no interest.

“The football side of it is great; in an ideal world your friends and family would be around you, too, but it’s not to be. I’m not going to deny that. Hopefully, one day I’ll get back playing in Scotland. At the moment, I live with five other players and we all get along with each other, but, at the end of the day, home is home.”