Simon O’Gorman reports from Tallaght Stadium
Two goals from Jack Byrne did the damage at Tallaght Stadium on Friday night as Shamrock Rovers finally overcame a heroic performance from UCD.
The midfielder netted seven minutes from time after Yoyo Mahdy had cancelled out his early opener, and Aaron McEneff added a third in injury time to close the game out.
Rovers took control from the opening minute, Byrne prompting from midfield with a stream of through balls, while Ronan Finn, Dylan Watts and McEneff buzzed around the danger area.
Watts curled an effort just over after nine minutes and Greene should have scored five minutes later when Byrne played him through but Conor Kearns produced an excellent save from his low shot.
The opening goal came on 19 minutes and it was a beauty. Greg Bolger nicked possession from Josh Collins and found Finn on the left. His perfect pass found Byrne on the edge of the UCD box.
He took one touch, turned and placed his shot to the right-hand corner of Kearns’ goal. The UCD keeper should have kept it out, but the ball cannoned off him and into the net.
McEneff missed a chance similar to Greene’s on 26 minutes, a chance also conjured by Byrne, and Byrne himself forced a superb save from Kearns on the half hour with a wickedly curling effort from distance that was bound for the very top right corner of the UCD goal.
Rovers could have been home and hosed at this point and the last thing anyone expected was an equaliser, which arrived on 37 minutes.
A ball up to Yousef Mahdy looked hopeless, surrounded as he was by three Rovers defenders, but the ball broke to Neil Farrugia who set off on a run that brought him all the way to the end line. A simple cut back landed in front of Mahdy, who couldn’t miss from six yards out.
Rovers remained easy on the eye despite the setback and should have regained their lead a minute before the break but Greene somehow failed to connect with Sean Kavanagh’s drilled cross across the UCD goalmouth.
Rovers began the second half as they had played for 44 minutes of the first half; firmly on the front foot, and within a minute Josh Collins had headed a flicked header from a Byrne corner off the UCD goal-line.
But, as with the first half, the home side’s possession and willingness to attack wasn’t producing the goal they needed.
Frustration began to build in the stands when, after 55 minutes, Farrugia latched onto a loose pass and drove at the Rovers defence.
Grace’s foul on the very edge of the box stopped him in his tracks and O’Neill’s free kick came to nothing, but it raised the question, could Rovers actually lose this?
With an hour gone, Byrne was losing his effectiveness. The flicks and through balls were no longer finding their targets, while every time Farrugia got the ball for UCD exciting possibilities opened up.
Rovers were still bossing possession and territory but a strong run and shot from Jason McClelland on 68 minutes had home fans’ hearts in their mouths.
Moments later, at the other end, Josh Collins deflected Sean Kavanagh’s shot over the UCD bar after Byrne had released him into acres of empty space.
This signaled an upsurge in noise around the ground. Coustrain had a shot touched away by Kearns and, a few minutes later, Kavanagh slid a ball across the goalmouth in front of the South Stand, but despite their howls no Rovers player was there to finish.
The horns were sounding yet the walls of Jericho stood.
Into the last quarter and with pressure building on the UCD defence Collins again came to the rescue with a ferocious block on an Aaron Greene shot.
Byrne then played McEneff through the left-hand channel but his low cross skidded across the goalmouth and out the other side.
With seven minutes left, it finally came. Kavanagh released Finn and his effort from a tight angle beat Kearns but cannoned back into play off the far upright.
The ball fell to Byrne and, as the home crowd rose in anticipation, he hammered tha ball home from 15 yards.
With the pressure released Rovers might have added a third when substitutes Trevor Clarke and Ohren Vojic combined but the latter’s sliding attempt at the back post went wide.
And in the dying moments Kearns pulled off a terrific save from McEneff’s close range header, but UCD kept playing.
In added time, a cleared corner produced a break from Rovers with Kearns stranded up field, and McEneff had the unusual pleasure of rolling the ball into an unguarded net for Rovers’ third.
Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Sam Bone (Trevor Clarke 71), Lee Grace, Roberto Lopes, Sean Kavanagh; Aaron McEneff, Greg Bolger; Ronan Finn, Jack Byrne, Dylan Watts (Joel Coustrain 59); Aaron Greene (Orhan Vojic 78).
Subs not used: Leon Pohls (gk), Brandon Kavanagh, Thomas Oluwa, Dean Dillon.
UCD: Conor Kearns; Dan Tobin, Josh Collins, Liam Scales, Mark Dignam; Timmy Molloy, Gary O’Neill; Jason McClelland, Richie O’Farrell, Neil Farrugia; Yousef Mahdy (Sean McDonald 84).
Subs not used: Gavin Sheridan (gk), Evan Farrell, Darragh Corcoran, Conor Crowley, Paul Doyle, Kevin Coffey.
Booked: Josh Collins (65).
Referee: John McLoughlin.
Attendance: 3,800 (estimate).
Extratime Player of the Match: Jack Byrne (Shamrock Rovers).