There had been much talk over the opening weeks of the season of UCD’s pitch being a handicap to their natural passing game, so one can only imagine the student’s delight as they set eyes on the green baize of Tallaght Stadium. However, for the opening fifteen minutes they saw precious little of the ball as Shamrock Rovers dominated possession.
Karl Sheppard and Gary O’Neill chased about up front looking to open up channels of delivery and Ronan Finn and Conor McCormack warmed up nicely in central midfield. But too often the home side chose the ball over the top, allowing UCD captain, Michael Leahy, to demonstrate his ability to spot danger and act appropriately.
However, such was the weight of Rover’s attacking play that chances inevitably snuck through, the first of which came when UCD full back Ciaran Nangle gave a poor ball away to Finn. The Rovers man took a step outside and drove a powerful shot wide of Ger Barron’s goal but close enough to get wrapped in the side netting.
Two minutes later Nangle was caught again, Finn the beneficiary once more. He fed Paddy Kavanagh who drove across the box, Ger Barron beating away his shot from 15 yards. There followed a short spell where UCD decided to explore this ‘flat pitch’ idea, and showed that could play some good football. Darren Meenan curling in a wicked shot that Alan Mannus was well placed to hold and Nangle delivered a superb cross from the left that Robbie Creevy could only head wide.
But there was no doubting the star of the show. As the game developed it was Ronan Finn who dragged it by the fetlocks into its semi entertaining state. Time again the midfielder showed a delicacy of touch and awareness of space that elevated proceedings beyond what might, in lesser hands, have given in to mundanity.
While Rovers relied largely on corners to create a sense of danger, Finn stood apart. On fifteen minutes he set Sheppard away down the right with simple touch and a superb ball into the strikers path. On 28 minutes Finn clipped a delightful sand wedge through for O’Neill but the striker couldn’t stretch enough to shoot effectively.
UCD had a call for a penalty on 31 minutes after Dan Ledwith and Nangle played an impressive one-two that allowed the latter to cross for Creevy to head against a Rovers body. Four minutes later the main programme resumed as Finn set up O’Neill from the end line but his punched shot sailed over the UCD bar.
Six minutes before half time it was Karl Sheppard who came closest to disrupting the static score line, flicking a header against Barron’s far post from an Enda Stevens cross. The half ended in frustration for the home support who might have felt that their side’s performance bore too great a resemblance to that of two weeks ago when Bray Wanderers trumped greater possession with organisation and diligence.
There was a brief burst of urgency from the home side as the second half began but it was smothered with alarming rapidity by a UCD side who had finally discovered the value of a proper surface.
On 50 minutes Ledwith played Marshall in on the right and he drove a daisy cutter inches wide of Mannus’ far post. One minute later and Creevy skipped through the Rovers box to do exactly the same but from only six yards out.
Michael O’Neill had plainly had enough. Just eight minutes into the half Stephen Rice came on for McCormack and Ciaran Kilduff replaced Kavanagh, but still the blue shirted students held their ground.
A corner from Dennehy on 57 minutes was met at the back post by Kilduff but Paul O’Conor blocked and the striker was unable to persuade the ball past Barron’s grasping hands when the loose ball was sent back in by Stevens. Gradually the Hoops reasserted themselves and Ken Oman’ header from another corner was deflected wide on the hour mark.
At times Rovers appeared to be playing with four up front and, just as they had done against Bray, they had the ball at their feet for more time than was decent. But translating this into goal-scoring opportunities did not come easy.
Finally, with almost seventy minutes played, Billy Dennehy unlocked the door, pushing down the left touchline and delivering a deep cross that Karl Sheppard met at the back post. His first time effort sped low past Barron and into the back of the UCD net. The sense of relief that washed down from the stands was almost visible.
And, as is so often the way when a blockage is freed, the Hoops added a second three minutes later. It was Gary O’Neill who created this one, sliding Finn in beyond the UCD defence. He took a touch and drilled his shot low past Barron, capping a fine performance with a smoothly executed goal.
Rovers were now playing with a light heart, surging forwards and looking genuinely threatening. Sheppard fired over the bar on 75 minutes and Gary O’Neill fresh-aired from six yards out, Dan Murray heading wide from the corner that followed. But if they planned to play out the game in a celebratory conga they were to be disappointed.
With nine minutes remaining substitute Samir Belhout worked his way across the Rovers box, unable to find room for a shot. Finally the ball bounced in the direction of fellow sub Robbie Benson who let fly with a rocket fuelled shot from 20 yards that would still be going now had the top left hand corner of the Rovers net not intervened.
However, a nail biting finish was denied us when, moments later, Finn played Dennehy into space on the left and he hammered a diagonal shot past Barron that defender Mick Leahy helped into the net, his despairing slide failing to save the day.
All that was left was for Kilduff to miscue from eight yards and O’Neill to roll a carefully placed shot beyond Barron’s far post. It was a night when statistical expectations were observed but Shamrock Rovers will know how hard won these three points were. Martin Russell will be left to observe that his side played well but that no points equals no points a commodity that remain in short supply down Donnybrook way.
Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Pat Sullivan, Dan Murray, Ken Oman, Enda Stevens; Paddy Kavanagh (Ciaran Kilduff, 53), Conor McCormack (Stephen Rice, 53), Ronan Finn (Colm Corcoran, 85), Billy Dennehy; Karl Sheppard, Gary O’Neill.
Subs not used: Ryan Thompson, Pat Flynn, Mick Doyle, Dean Kelly.
Sendings Off: None.
UCD: Ger Barron; Paul O’Conor, Mick Leahy, David O’Connor, Ciaran Nangle; Dean Marshall (Robbie Benson, 73), Paul Corry (James Kavanagh, 83), Robbie Creevy, Daniel Ledwith (Samir Belhout, 73), Darren Meenan; Graham Rusk.
Subs not used: Mark McGinley, Sean Harding, Danny Fallon, Mark Langtry.
Bookings: Paul O’Conor (78).
Sendings Off: None.
extratime.ie Man of the Match: Ronan Finn by a country mile.
Referee: Neil Doyle.
Attendance: 4,000 (estimate).