Shamrock Rovers bowed out of 2011 with conflicting emotions on Thursday night as they went down 4-0 to Tottenham Hotspur at Tallaght Stadium. It was a game that saw the end of manager Michael O’Neill’s reign and a Europa League Group A record that shows six defeats out of six and a goal difference of minus fifteen.
But the statistics tell only a portion of the story. Shamrock Rovers head into the Christmas holidays as League Champions, having retained the crown that they won in 2010, and with the knowledge that their European achievements represent an historic first for League of Ireland football.
It should also be recognised that this evening’s heavy defeat began with an opening period in which Rovers played with the kind of assurance that hints at the benefits of sustained exposure to quality
Karl Sheppard, who has been one of Rovers’ most impressive performers in Europe this year, was clearly up for the challenge of breaching Tottenham’s second string defence and he caused considerable problems for Younes Kaboul and Jake Livermore.
It was Rovers who first threatened to score when Dan Murray won a header from a Billy Dennehy free kick and Ken Oman cracked the loose ball narrowly wide of Carlo Cudicini’s right hand post.
Danny Rose caused a moment of consternation for the Rovers defence when his looping cross from the right had to be excellently defended by Enda Stevens at the back post, but Michael O’Neill’s men continued to deny the Tottenham midfield the space and time on the ball that they wanted.
Dan Murray directed a header on target for the Hoops on 23 minutes from Dennehy’s corner and a petulant shot from Jermaine Defoe, that was lashed almost deliberately high and wide, betrayed the frustration that Tottenham were experiencing in trying to break Rovers down.
But, with 25 minutes gone, Spurs made a crucial change. They switched their wide players, Steven Pienaar and Andros Townsend, to the opposite flanks and the nature of the game changed almost immediately.
On 29 minutes Pienaar picked up the ball just inside the right hand corner of the box and, with little seeming to be on for him, he whipped a shot low across Richard Brush and into the far bottom corner of the net.
It was an opportunistic goal that scarcely represented the balance of the game up to that point. And worse was to follow for the home side. With Townsend tormenting Pat Sullivan on Rovers right flank, a second goal came nine minutes late. Rose and Defoe combined to present the winger with the room he needed to curl a sublime effort around Brush and just inside the far post.
It appeared that Rovers’ hopes of gaining anything from Group A were already over but, just to be sure, Spurs added a third right on half time. Townsend was the architect on this occasion, feinting past Ken Oman with a beautiful piece of skill before rolling the ball into Defoe’s feet, The Spurs striker turned on a sixpence and knocked a simple shot beyond Brush from six yards.
If the half time score appeared cruel, Rovers could not have denied that Spurs’ fifteen minutes of dominance had been ruthlessly exploited. Stephen O’Donnell replaced Stephen Rice at half time and he quickly impressed, adding a healthy dose of creativity to Rovers’ forward play.
Seven minutes into the half Pat Sullivan threatened to reawaken memories of Belgrade when he controlled a long crossfield ball from Sheppard and ducked inside a Spurs defender before unleashing a powerful shot. This time, however, it was blocked away by a flailing defensive challenge.
Moments later Billy Dennehy got an awkward shot on target but Cudicini just about dealt with the ugly bounce of the ball and kept his side’s lead intact. Three minutes later Sheppard burst onto a through ball only to be wrestled to the ground by Livermore, right on the lip of the Spurs box. Referee Stephan wasn’t interested, however, the first of a number of calls that would go against the Hoops.
O’Donnell caught a dropping ball on the half volley after 61 minutes and his raking shot skidded through the Spurs defence only to drift inches wide. Rovers were performing well but in the 65th minute Sandro almost scored again for the visitors when his poked shot evaded Brush but bounced back off the post, only to rebound into the retreating goalkeeper and bounce wide.
With 20 minutes left Sheppard and Paterson both beat Spurs’ off-side line and seemed certain to score, but as Paterson touched the ball to Sheppard the striker had stepped ahead of the ball and the assistant’s flag ended the opportunity. Moments later Sheppard had his legs cleaned out inside the area by Kaboul but Mr Studer maintained his policy of non-intervention.
Substitute Gary Twigg flung himself at a Dennehy cross, sending his header narrowly wide but Spurs sub, Iago Falque, went one better, shooting crisply onto the inside of Brush’s left hand post, only to see the rebound career back across the six yard box and away to safety.
When Harry Kane nudged the ball home from just six yards on 90 minutes it seemed overly cruel, but only in the context of Shamrock Rovers heroic campaign over 12 European games, most of them played in the teeth of long odds. In truth it created a scoreline that Tottenham’s greater quality merited.
And so it ended. Michael O’Neill cut a subdued figure as he shared in the applause of the home fans. It was an unfortunate end to an historic season and, with Rovers restored to the pinnacle of the
domestic game during his time in charge, it was an undeservedly muted way to conclude three years of success.
Shamrock Rovers: Richard Brush; Pat Sullivan, Ken Oman, Dan Murray, Enda Stevens; Billy Dennehy, Ronan Finn (Gary Twigg, 57), Stephen Rice (Stephen O’Donnell, 46), Chris Turner, Jim Paterson; Karl Sheppard (Ciaran Kilduff, 74).
Subs not used: Ryan Thompson, Gary McCabe, Rohan Ricketts, Gary O’Neill.
Bookings: Murray (24).
Tottenham Hotspur: Carlo Cudicini; Benoit Assou-Ekotto (Iago Falque, 84), Younes Kaboul, Jake Livermore, Danny Rose; Andros Townsend, Sandro, Niko Kranjcar, Steven Pienaar; Jermaine Defoe (Harry Kane, 76), Giovani Dos Santos.
Subs not used: Heurelho Gomes, Thomas Carroll.
Bookings: Kranjcar (27), Pienaar (60).
Referee: Stephen Studer (Switzerland).
extratime.ie Man of the Match: Andros Townsend