WHILE tomorrow's UEFA Europa League third qualifying round will be the first meeting of Norwegian champions Rosenborg and Irish title winners Cork City, the Trondheim club know this island extremely well.
This is RBK’s fifth visit to the Republic, and ninth to the island in total, with Norway and both sides of Ireland often included in the same regional side of the draw - the perennial Tippeliagen winners also a potential opponent for the Rebel Army in the first qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League.
Having squeaked past Linfield in the first qualifying round of the 1986-87 European Cup, their next visit wasn’t to come for another 16 years, as Shels boss Dermot Keely welcomed Nils Arne Eggen - at that stage in his fifth spell as manager, having taken the Norwegian giants to a UEFA Champions League quarter-final four years earlier - to Tolka Park.
The visitors had an excellent first-leg away from home, racing into the lead from a badly defended throw-in less than two minutes into the game before smashing a second home 12 minutes later.
Richie Foran would sneak one in at the back post from a free-kick to give Shels hope, particularly when now assistant coach Erik Hoftun almost turned an equaliser into his own goal, but Petter Belsvik would put the tie beyond all doubt just a minute from time, catching the Dubs on the counter.
"As a league, Norway isn't any better than ours...” said Keely to the Irish Times’ Paul Buttner ahead of the return leg “...but Rosenborg are far superior than any other club within their league. We have to find the secret of being able to come into Europe and play at a level that gets you into the Champions League like Rosenborg have. If it can be done here in Norway, it can be replicated in Ireland.”
Shels did go out and earn a respectable draw at the Lerkendal Stadium, Foran again on target on the hour mark in a 1-1 draw, but sadly for Keely, and indeed the rest of the league, Champions League football still remain a pipedream for League of Ireland supporters 18 years later.
Meanwhile for Rosenborg, they were back in the Irish capital three years later, about three kilometres further into town this time as future-Portsmouth loanee Azar Karadas’ header made it two from two in Ireland, before thumping the Gypsies 4-0 in the return leg. RBK legend Roar Strand - whose number 6 jersey is the only one to be retired by the club to date - on the scoresheet in a 5-0 aggregate victory.
The Norwegian champions’ visit to Cork will be incredibly their sixth visit to the island since the turn of the century, facing Crusaders (twice) and Windsor Park for a second time as well as games against Sligo Rovers and Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk last year.
However, when they came to the Showgrounds in 2014 they were a much different outfit to that which had beaten Shels and Bohs almost a decade earlier. Drifting in the middle of the table, already out of the cup to their farm team Ranheim in one of Rosenborg’s most embarrassing results, the former kingpins were firmly off their perch, and in the sights of a Sligo side that were in the midst of a league winning season.
Sligo showed all signs of champions in northern Norway, as Alan Keane’s deflected shot following a delightful flick saw the Bit o Red ahead, who could barely believe Danny North adding a second away-goal with 20 minutes on the clock, smashing John Russell’s square ball into the roof of the net.
However, crucially Sligo couldn’t hold onto their clean sheet, as current Dundalk netminder Gary Rogers inadvertently punched former Blackburn Rovers star Morgan Gamst Pederson’s corner off the back of Alan Cawley and into the net.
Not enough to save then RBK manager Per Joar Hansen’s job, as Kåre Ingebrigtsen took over for the second-leg, but he saw his side hammered in the opening exchanges, before Danny North restored Sligo’s two-goal advantage, who just needed to hold out the remaining 75 minutes to record one of the all-time historic League of Ireland European victories.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. Pål André Helland - who is part of Rosenborg’s travelling party for tomorrow’s game - levelled proceedings just two minutes later, and after current Carrigaline United defender Kalen Spillane cleared off the line, a crumbling Sligo conceded a second after the break, Mike Jensen profiting from some shocking defending to stick the ball into the top left-hand corner of the net.
And after North missed a fantastic opportunity to put Sligo back into the lead, Jensen - who will be earmarked as a serious threat for the Norwegians - completed the remarkable comeback, smashing through a sea of bodies, ensuring Rosenborg would get through at the expense of their Irish counterparts once again.
Dundalk took Ingebrigtsen’s side to extra-time last year, whose recent sacking following their first leg defeat of Icelandic side Valur has left the Trondheim outfit in the same turbulent situation they found themselves before their trip west four years ago.
One win in eight games for LOI teams against Troillongan would suggest that John Caulfield’s side face an uphill task, but City players and management have been saying throughout the last fortnight they would take the Norwegian champions over Celtic. With City the last League of Ireland side in Europe this season, there can be no excuses this time around.