Goals from Billy Dennehy and Colin Hawkins earned Shamrock Rovers a two goal cushion in the first leg of their Setanta Cup quarter-final with Cliftonville at Tallaght Stadium on Monday night, in a performance that was comfortable for the Airtricity League champions, without ever being emphatic.
Shamrock Rovers enjoyed the perfect start to this tie having already caused Cliftonville plenty of problems by the time Billy Dennehy met Gary McCabe’s low cross at the back post to drive home the opening goal on 11 minutes.
An earlier Dennehy free kick had almost created the opener four minutes earlier when Ryan Brown in the Cliftonville goal could only parry the ball to the on-rushing Aaron Greene, but the ex-Sligo player knocked his effort wide.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic though and Diarmuid O'Carroll, operating as the visitor’s lone striker, might have done better when played through the Rovers defence on eight minutes. Racing through on goal he shot too close to Oscar Jansson, who had came out sharply, and his shot, hit on the run, was batted away for a corner.
Despite the odd moment of danger it was the home side that looked the more impressive, sweeping the ball about with confidence and, at times, breaking from the back with pace and elegance. Greene almost slipped Dennehy through on 15 minutes but Brown was alert to the danger, and two minutes later a typically aggressive run from McCabe was picked up by Kerea Gilbert, though the fullback’s cross failed to find a taker.
Rovers dropped the tempo somewhat as the half progressed and Cliftonville might have sneaked an equaliser when former Hoop Barry Johnston’s free kick skidded inches wide of Jansson’s goal. But overall, the home defence looked comfortable and the half ended without the modest crowd having had too much incident to excite them.
It’s difficult to imagine that Stephen Kenny would not have urged his men to pick up the pace of the game in the second period but it was Cliftonville who took up the baton, Eamon Seydak forcing Jansson to touch his free kick over the bar just two minutes after the re-start.
The resulting corner might also have yielded an equaliser when Chris Turner appeared to handle as he blocked away a Cliftonville effort on goal. But Rovers should have been further ahead on 53 minutes when Aaron Greene fresh-aired just ten yards from goal. That in itself was a clear opportunity but the visiting defence then stood and watched as Turner rushed onto the rebounding ball, Brown somehow managed to deflect his point blank effort off a post and away to eventual safety.
Rovers’ next attempt was an altogether more worthy affair, Gary McCabe picking the ball up some 40 yards from goal before jinking his way through to fire a curling shot at Brown’s goal that the keeper just managed to tip away to his right. Ronan Scannell then executed a saving block as Dennehy rushed in on the loose ball.
The resulting corner, however, did provide a second goal for Stephen Kenny’s men when McCabe’s floated delivery was met by the towering figure of Colin Hawkins, his header finding the net from eight yards.
In the final quarter Cliftonville sprung Chris Scannell and Liam Boyce from the bench and they offered the visitors renewed energy going forward. Boyce beat Conor Powell down the right before finding Johnston, who’s attempt from ten yards was cleared by Gilbert.
But a crucial away goal proved to be beyond the Belfast side and the final score-line was a fair reflection of Rover’s dominance on the night.
Shamrock Rovers: Oscar Jansson; Kerea Gilbert, Colin Hawkins, Graham Gartland, Conor Powell; Gary McCabe, Stephen O’Donnell (Stephen Rice, 90), Chris Turner, Billy Dennehy; Aaron Greene (Ronan Finn, 78), Daryl Kavanagh (Gary O’Neill, 68).
Subs not used: Lee Steacy, Ken Oman, Sean Gannon, Gary Twigg.
Bookings: Turner (33), Gilbert (84).
Cliftonville: Ryan Brown; Ronan Scannell, Ciaran Caldwell, Dermot McVeigh, Eamon Seydak; Stephen Garrett, Ryan Catney, George McMullan (Emmet Templeton, 90), Martin Donnelly (Chris Scannell, 67), Barry Johnston; Diarmuid O’Carroll (Liam Boyce, 76).
Subs not used: John Connolly, Aaron Smyth, Mark Clarke, Jody Lynch.
Bookings: O’Carroll (63).
Referee: Neil Doyle.
Attendance: 1,400 (official).
extratime.ie Man of the Match: Gary McCabe.