Dave Donnelly reports from Tallaght Stadium
Shamrock Rovers moved top of the table on Monday night with a comfortable 3-0 win over Finn Harps, who saw Gareth Harkin stretchered off and manager Ollie Horgan sent off on a miserable night for the Ballybofey side.
The visitors at least kept a clean sheet in the second half after goals from Roberto Lopes, Dylan Watts and Aaron Greene before the break threatened to turn the game into a rout.
Watts also blasted over a penalty during an action-packed first half as Harps were spared a scoreline even crueller and less reflective than the one they took into the break.
It was always going to be a tough ask for part-time Harps to make the seven-hour round trip to Dublin for the second Monday in succession, the tie having been brought forward from May despite the Donegal side’s protests.
The good vibes around the club haven’t been hampered by a couple of defeats early doors, and an impressive travelling support of roughly 80 made the trip in support of their side.
And they were rewarded with an initial flurry of activity that saw them compete well with their better-rested opponents in the opening stage.
Still, Greene should really have put the Hoops in front inside the opening five minutes as Harps overcommitted to attack and Jack Byrne was able to slip in the striker.
Greene, who missed Friday’s draw with Dundalk following his red card in the derby defeat at Dalymount Park, skipped inside Daniel O’Reilly and wound up to shoot, but he pulled the trigger at fresh air and Harps cleared.
Harps replied within 30 seconds and registered the first shot on target when Caolan McAleer wandered in off the right wing and forced Alan Mannus into a routine save.
Aaron McEneff called Harps’ keeper, Burke, into action shortly after but, running away from goal, he couldn’t generate any power in his shot.
McEneff was the architect of the opener two minutes later, picking up Jack Byrne’s corner on the edge of the box and stinging Burke’s palms with a low drive, and Lopes was on hand to smash home the loose ball.
A strong run by left-back O’Reilly wasn’t far from yielding an equaliser as the new signing from Longford Town turned Sam Bone inside out and inside again before smashing a dipping shot past the top corner.
Watts had a chance to double the lead from the spot midway through the half as Harkin caught McEneff on the heel and referee Ben Connolly pointed to the spot, perhaps a little harshly, although Harkin made no protest.
The midfielder, restored to the starting line-up after missing out on Friday, leant back into his shot and sent it billowing into the new south stand, where the ultras voiced their frustration.
Watts did get his goal in the end, seven minutes before half time, as Dan Carr capitalised on a needless flick from Harry Ascroft and laid it on for Watts to crash a low shot past the despairing Burke.
Burke had to be at his very best to deny Watts his second moments later, as Sam Bone teed up the midfielder for a beautifully-struck shot, but the Harps keeper pulled off a top-class save to claw the ball from the top corner.
Harkin was stretchered off in injury time after appearing to go over awkwardly in making a clearance, and Harps seemed to still be adjusting to the arrival of Tony McNamee when Greene made it three.
Sean Kavanagh slipped a through ball in for the Dubliner, who emphatically drove the ball past Burke and into the opposite corner.
The visitors made a much better fist of the second half but they were a beaten side, and Rovers had chances to add further gloss to the scoreline.
A wonderful run and cross from Dan Carr presented Greene a chance to net his third of the season but his thunderous volley cannoned off the crossbar and onto the line before bouncing clear.
Brandon Kavanagh, who replaced McEneff for the second half, played in Watts with a lovely dinked ball, but the midfielder couldn’t quite nudge the ball past the advancing Burke.
Harps manager, Horgan, was sent to the stands in bizarre circumstances late on as he sought to speak to Ascroft as the defender was substituted, leaving William O’Connor the most senior coach on the bench with assistant Paul Hegarty already suspended.
Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Sam Bone (Joey O’Brien 66), Roberto Lopes , Lee Grace, Sean Kavanagh; Greg Bolger, Aaron McEneff (Brandon Kavanagh 46), Dylan Watts; Jack Byrne (Orhan Vojic 66), Dan Carr, Aaron Greene.
Subs not used: Leon Pohls (gk), Trevor Clarke, Ronan Finn, Joel Coustrain.
Finn Harps: Peter Burke; John Kavanagh, Harry Ascroft (Colm Deasy 69), Keith Cowan, Daniel O’Reilly; Jacob Borg, Gareth Harkin (Tony McNamee 45+3), Niall McGinley; Caolan McAleer, Mikey Place, Nathan Boyle (Mark Russell 58).
Subs not used: Ciaran Gallagher (gk), Liam Walsh, Michael Gallagher, Raffaele Cretaro.
Booked: Nathan Boyle (56).
Referee: Ben Connolly
Attendance: 1,582 (official).
Extratime.ie Player of the Match: Dan Carr (Shamrock Rovers).