Goals from Gary O’Neill and Billy Dennehy secured Shamrock Rovers their first piece of silverware for 2011 as they overcame a spirited performance from Dundalk at Tallaght Stadium on Saturday evening.
Cup finals can be turgid affairs, often effected by nerves and caution, but this wasn’t one of those. After a shaky opening five minutes Dundalk settled and for the majority of the opening half they looked more likely contenders for the league crown than Shamrock Rovers who struggled to get their game going.
True, Rovers had the better of the opening five minutes, creating three attacks which were smothered by an insecure looking Dundalk defence. But thereafter, marshalled by Colin Hawkins, they coped superbly with lone striker Gary O’Neill, restricting the Hoops to occasional breaks down the flanks.
They even overcame the loss of Stephen McDonnell through injury after just nine minutes, creating their first real chance after 16 minutes when a flighted ball from Ross Gaynor was taken on his chest by Jason Byrne. The striker then turned and fired a shot inches wide of Alan Mannus’ left hand post.
Dundalk were out-passing and out-playing Rovers and on 31 minutes Mannus had to be at his best to tip a Mark Quigley free kick from 25 yards around his post. But Rovers still looked dangerous on the break with Ronan Finn particularly energetic on their behalf.
Three minutes before the break Billy Dennehy clattered a free kick off the butt of the Dundalk post and two minutes later Finn forced Peter Cherrie into an excellent save with a fierce low shot from 18 yards. Then Colin Hawkins was on hand with a terrific saving tackle on Finn before Daniel Kearns broke at the other end.
With half time imminent Kearns skipped past Dan Murray and, with Byrne in space a clear run on goal, inexplicably chose to shoot from too far out. The ball rolled impotently into the distance.
The second half saw no let up in the commitment of the two sides but things did not come as easily for Dundalk and Rovers began to claw back some degree of dominance. Finn should really have opened the scoring after 51 minutes when a Dennehy flick was deflected into his path but, bearing down on goal, he shot straight at Cherrie.
The loss of Jason Byrne five minutes later didn’t help the Dundalk cause and on 65 minutes Rovers took the lead. Gary Twigg had been introduced from the bench just one minute earlier but it was Gary O’Neill, so often the provider, who made the breakthrough.
Unsurprisingly it was Finn who created it, weaving his way to the by- line before pulling a simple ball back into O’Neill’s path. He didn’t have to be asked twice and lifted his shot into the roof of the Dundalk net from all of six yards.
If the blow failed to extinguish Dundalk’s spirit, it certainly dealt it a hefty blow. They suddenly looked tired and although they had enough quality on the field to keep Rovers honest it was the Hoops that drove on to dominate the remainder of the game.
Twigg might have added a second on 74 minutes when a Conor McCormack cross landed in his lap, the surprise taking the edge off the striker’s reflexes. Then Dennehy bounced a speculative cross off the Dundalk crossbar, but the best chances fell in the dying minutes when Twigg rolled a shot past Cherrie and off his right hand post having turned Michael Hector a tad too easily 25 yards from goal.
Quigley might have pulled it out of the fire for the Louth side a minute later but Mannus touched his curling shot around his post and, with three minutes of added time played it was left to Billy Dennehy to seal the result.
Dennehy picked up a ball in the centre and let fly from 25 yards, Cherrie getting a touch that spun the ball off the inside of his post and across the goal line. It might have stayed out but, spinning like atop, it crept agonisingly over the line and awarded the Cup to a Rovers side that, on balance, deserved their victory.
Dundalk: Peter Cherrie; Simon Madden, Colin Hawkins, Michael Hector, Nathan Murphy; Daniel Kearns, Greg Bolger, Stephen McDonnell (Dean Bennett, 9), Ross Gaynor (Johnny Breen, 85); Mark Quigley, Jason Byrne (Keith Ward, 59).
Subs not used: Paul Murphy, Shane Guthrie, Mark Griffin, Chris Kerr.
Bookings: Bolger (71).
Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Pat Sullivan, Dan Murray, Ken Oman, Enda Stevens; Karl Sheppard (Gary McCabe, 79), Ronan Finn, Conor McCormack, Stephen Rice (Gary Twigg, 64), Billy Dennehy; Gary O’Neill.
Subs not used: Ryan Thompson, Pat Flynn, Chris Turner, Paddy Kavanagh, Ciaran Kilduff.
Bookings: Finn (39).
Referee: Alan Kelly.
extratime.ie Man of the Match: Ronan Finn (Shamrock Rovers).