There was a lot at stake in this game, more perhaps than either manager would have liked to admit, and signs of caution abounded. Both sides set themselves up with lone strikers, each employing wide midfielders with sound attacking credentials, and from the first whistle priority was given to holding possession and passing to feet.
In the early moments Ken Oman delivered a long ball into space for Gary O’Neill to chase and, although the Hoop’s point man almost made it, Michael O’Neill’s irritated reaction from the home bench made it clear that thumping the ball off into fifty-fifty land was not the game plan.
The first tickle of danger came in the eighth minute when O’Neill dug out a chipped cross from the right that Gary McCabe headed weakly wide. It was hardly a breakthrough but it indicated the balance of possession which grew in the home side’s favour as the half progressed.
Three minutes later some delightful build up play might have offered an opener had Conor McCormack seen Pat Sullivan lurking in acres of space on the right, instead he chose a short ball to Karl Sheppard who fired a shot narrowly over from 20 yards.
On twenty minutes The Hoops appeared to be getting closer when two consecutive balls from Ronan Finn caused some panic in the Sligo box. Both were fielded by Derek Foran, the second resulting in a scooped clearance that fell to Sheppard, his header looping harmlessly over the Sligo crossbar.
Sligo’s first moment of real intent came in the 24th minute when Richie Ryan delivered a low corner into the box that Joseph Ndo stepped over, allowing Raffael Cretaro to smack a low shot into a Hooped body, the rebound ricocheting off Ndo and out.
But it was home side that were creating the more danger and just after the half hour mark a superb dink inside from Gary McCabe put Finn through. As he surged towards the goal he had two options, he chose a low ball to O’Neill at the back post which Brendan Clarke crucially smothered. Sheppard, option number two for a pullback was not amused.
He need not have been concerned, three minutes later he blocked what should have been a mundane clearance from Clarke. The ball cannoned inches wide but moments later McCormack found space on the left and whipped in a perfect cross that bypassed O’Neill and landed smack on Sheppard’s forehead. The striker directed the ball inside the left hand post of Clarke’s goal for his fourth goal in four games.
Both sides continued to play patient, passing football in the second half but penetrative attacks were in short supply, both teams using up the bulk of their energy attempting to thread their way through midfield. With space and time on the ball at a premium the game became something of a wrestling match. There was little in the way of malice, rather a succession of grips and holds that stifled the prospect of a clean opportunity.
Sligo might have breached the home defence on 54 minutes when a through ball from Alan Keane was flicked on by Eoin Doyle, but Mathew Blinkhorn did not have time to adjust to the new trajectory and the chance passed. And five minutes later Sheppard had a half chance to double his tally when set away by another fine ball from McCabe. However his shot lacked precision and flew straight at goalkeeper Clarke.
The balance of possession swung towards Sligo as the final twenty minutes arrived although their increased urgency came at the price of a certain loss of composure. Then, with five minutes left, Derek Foran, hounded by Ronan Finn on the edge of the Sligo box, felled the Hoops’ midfielder and conceded a dangerous free which was knocked in by Enda Stevens.
Clarke held it under pressure and referee Buttimer awarded a free out. That should have been the end of it but Ken Oman needlessly stepped in front of the free, picking up a second yellow and an early bath. Now firmly in the last chance saloon, the ‘Bit o’ Red’ had efforts from Alan Kirby and Ryan that caused less concern than they would have liked.
Ciaran KIlduff might have put the tie to bed but didn’t, shooting into the side netting having outpaced the overworked Foran. With two of four added minutes played John Russell rolled a through ball for Blinkhorn who hammered a shot at goal from eight yards out. It smelled like an equaliser but Alan Mannus produced a tremendous blocking save and with that the Sligo cause was lost.
Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Pat Sullivan, Dan Murray, Ken Oman Enda Stevens; Gary McCabe (Billy Dennehy, 63), Ronan Finn, Stephen Rice, Conor McCormack (Chris Turner, 81), Karl Sheppard; Gary O’Neill (Ciaran Kilduff, 73).
Subs not used: Ryan Thompson, Pat Flynn, Paddy Kavanagh, Dean Kelly.
Bookings: Oman (29).
Sendings Off: Oman (84).
Sligo Rovers: Brendan Clarke; Alan Keane, Derek Foran, Jason McGuinness, Iarfhlaith Davoren; Eoin Doyle, Danny Ventre (John Russell, 79), Richie Ryan, Joseph Ndo (Alan Kirby, 75), Raffaele Cretaro (Aaron Greene, 63); Mathew Blinkhorn.
Subs not used: Ciaran Kelly, John Dillon, Daryl Horgan, Mark McGoldrick.
Sendings Off: None.
extratime.ie Man of the Match: Karl Sheppard.
Referee: Anthony Buttimer.
Attendance: 5,000 (estimate).