Date: 3 p.m. Oct. 9, 2010
Venue: Tallaght Stadium
This was a game that always had the potential for disaster with Rovers having seen a comfortable lead at the top of the Airtricity Premier Division table slip away over recent weeks. With three defeats in their last four league games, facing a Sporting Fingal side who are in the thick of a chase for European qualification was always going to be tough.
With their match kicking off at 3pm the day began badly for Shamrock Rovers before they even took to the field. News that Bohemians had beaten St. Patrick’s Athletic by a goal to nil at Richmond Park arrived some five minutes before the game began, ramping up the pressure on Michael O’Neill’s men and making three points a necessity.
With their arch rivals temporarily top of the league Rovers started the game with all the intent of a side determined to rectify that situation and indeed all the confidence of a team that felt they were capable of it.
From the first whistle it was an open, attacking game, and within moments the home side had breached the Fingal left flank in a manner befitting aspiring league champions.
James Chambers took a ball from full back Pat Flynn and immediately spun it inside to Chris Turner. He then hared after the return and, though it looked as if he would run out of pitch, he swung his right foot just as the ball reached the bye-line, sending over an immaculate cross which Gary Twigg cushioned into a pocket of space six yards out. Sadly for the vibrant Hoops’ support there were no takers.
On eight minutes Fingal showed that they too were capable of effective wing play when Conan Byrne skinned Enda Stevens and delivered a daisy cutter into the Hoops box. Neither of his sliding forwards, Glen Crowe and Gary O’Neill, could make contact.
Five minutes later the home side eased the tension with the opening goal. Billy Dennehy slid a ball through the off-side line and, after a moment’s hesitation when everyone expected a flag, the Scotsman advanced on goal. As Brendan Clarke came out Twigg rolled the ball to his left where Thomas Stewart touched in for his sixth league goal of the season.
Rovers almost scored again in the 24th minute when Chambers struck a dipping volley just inches over the Fingal bar but by that point the visitors had found some momentum of their own. Glen Crowe forced Mannus to touch his first time shot around the post on 15 minutes, before, again, nearly connecting with a Byrne cross three minutes later.
As the half wore on it was Fingal who took hold of the game. Rovers confidence seemed to evaporate and it became increasingly obvious that some title run-in nerves were there after all. Conan Byrne was their tormentor in chief, carving up Rover’s left flank and delivering a series of crosses that put the home defence under growing pressure.
On 32 minutes Sean Williams shaved the top of the crossbar with a header from a Byrne corner and four minutes later Colin Hawkins rose at the back post to meet another of Byrne’s accurate crosses. This time the ball whistled just wide of Mannus’ right hand post.
Just before the break Craig Sives might have stretched the home side’s lead with a rasping volley that was heroically blocked by a lunging Lorcan Fitzgerald. But with fifteen minutes to re-focus on the game plan, Rovers came out for the second half full of energy. Within two minutes Gary Twigg should have scored their second when he beat the off-side trap once again, running on to a lob from Turner. A perfect touch of the forehead dropped the ball at his feet but his attempt to lob of the onrushing Clarke landed safely in the goalkeeper’s hands.
Then it was Dennehy’s turn to burst through Fingal’s flat back four. Stewart played him through as the off-side Twigg stepped aside. But, clean through on Clarke, the winger chose to seek out Stewart at the far post and his ill-judged pass went behind the striker to be cleared by a rash of covering defenders.
Thereafter it was all Rovers. Dennehy left O’Brien standing with an electrifying burst of pace only to shoot straight at Clarke but in the 63rd minute the Hoops were given a gilt edged opportunity to settle the affair.
Playing a neat one two with Dennehy, Chris Turner broke into the box, pushed the ball past the advancing Clarke and, without too much encouragement, hit the deck. There looked to be minimal contact but Clarke was booked and referee Declan Hanney awarded the penalty. Turner himself placed the ball on the spot. One swipe of his right leg later and the crossbar was quivering in the wind while the net hung still and untroubled.
Two further chances were squandered in the following minutes as Twigg and Stewart shot straight at Clarke in quick succession. But if Rovers seemed destined not to score again, at least their opponents were making distinctly less headway in that direction.
With fifteen minutes to go Liam Buckley sent Alan Kirby on for defender Colin Hawkins. Fingal’s ambitions of a third place finish and qualification for the Europa League were slipping away amid Rover’ profligacy.
Still Rovers drove forwards. In the 76th minute Twigg touched a ball to Dennehy, now patrolling the right wing, but his shot flew across Clarke and beyond the far post. Buckley sent on the more attacking Ollie Cahill in place of full back Lorcan Fitzgerald but there seemed to be little progress. Until, with just three minutes remaining, a high ball bounced backwards off the head of Stephen Rice and into the feet of Aidan Price.
There was ample time for the Rovers defender to do just about anything he chose with the ball. He chose to shepherd it back to Mannus. Unfortunately for all concerned it was no longer traveling in that direction and Mannus was waiting for Price to put his foot through it.
Gary O’Neill snuck in, stole the ball and dinked it over the Rovers ‘keeper. There was barely time for that tragic gaffe to sink in before Fingal took a barely believable lead. Ronan Finn fed the ball to that old gunfighter Glen Crowe and his shot from 15 yards deflected sharply off Price and into the Rovers net.
There were three minutes of time added but Rovers’ heart was broken. The final moments were played out in funereal silence and on the whistle there were clear signs of the trauma that had just occurred. Twigg collapsed on the halfway line and the Fingal players, rather than celebrate their victory, chose instead to commiserate with their opponents.
As the players trudged towards the tunnel there was a powerful sense that those present had just seen the decisive moment in this season’s league title race. It’s not over yet, but it’s becoming clear which way the wind is blowing.
Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Pat Flynn, Craig Sives, Aidan Price, Enda Stevens; James Chambers, Chris Turner, Stephen Rice, Billy Dennehy; Thomas Stewart, Gary Twigg.
Subs not used: Pat Jennings, Danny Murphy, Paddy Kavanagh, Stephen Bradley, Neale Fenn.
Bookings: Stevens (68).
Sporting Fingal: Brendan Clarke; Ger O’Brien, Kenny Browne, Colin Hawkins (Alan Kirby, 75), Lorcan Fitzgerald (Ollie Cahill, 82); Conan Byrne, Sean Williams, Ronan Finn, Shane McFaul; Glen Crowe, Gary O’Neill.
Subs not used: Darren Quigley, Brian Gannon, Keith Quinn.
Bookings: Clarke (63).
extratime.ie Man of the Match: Chris Turner.
Referee: Declan Hanney.
Attendance: 3,500 (estimate).