The 18:25 to Tallaght - How the 2020 League of Ireland was won

Mon, Oct 26 2020

None Credit: Michael P Ryan (ETPhotos)

Shamrock Rovers earned their 18th league title in a season like no other, winning what ended up being the first 18 game league season since 1962/63 and with the bulk of the games played out behind-closed-doors.

Going undefeated from their 14 games played to date, the Hoops won the title with four games to spare, winning a dozen matches, scoring the most goals, conceding the fewest and keeping nine cleans sheets along the way.

Macdara Ferris takes a look back at how the Hoops won the 2020 SSE Airtricity League Premier Division.

The Hoops hopes for 2020

Rovers came into the new campaign full of confidence on the back of winning the FAI Cup against rivals Dundalk in a penalty shootout last season ending end their 32 year FAI Cup famine.

The Hoops had finished runners up to Dundalk in the league by 11 points but having kept a club record 21 clean sheets from 36 league games, the aim was very much to go one step further and win their first title since 2011.

Derby day opener

The season’s President’s Cup against Dundalk fell foul of the weather and Storm Denis nearly did the same to the league opener - a Dublin derby at Dalymount Park against a Bohemians side who Rovers hadn’t beaten in a league game at the venue since 2017.

The match, moved to a Saturday afternoon kick-off at the request of An Garda Síochána, was played out in the most atrocious of weather - so bad that RTÉ were unable to safely broadcast the match live on TV. 

There wasn’t much pretty football on show as the pitch cut up throughout the game and the home team weren’t helped when Andy Lyons was sent off on 65 minutes.

Rovers pressed hard with the additional man and were rewarded when Aaron Greene pounced on a James Talbot error to grab a 93rd minute winner to get the season going.

Liam Scales

It was a great way to win it with Greener scoring in the last minute. To win a Dublin Derby in my debut for Shamrock Rovers, it can’t go any better than that!

Dundalk defeated in an instant classic

After the Hoops hit Cork City for six at home - with Graham Burke scoring five - Rovers beat Waterford 2-0 at the RSC. Their next game against Dundalk was a classic played out in front of the largest ever league crowd in Tallaght (7,522). 

Rovers took the lead through Dylan Watts before Jordan Flores equalised with a wondergoal. In the second half Pat Hoban scored on the counter attack before Pico Lopes equalised.

A superb Jack Byrne strike seven minutes from time won the match as he turned Chris Shields one way and then the other to create space to strike the ball home from distance.

The following week the Hoops travelled to Sligo with some murmurings that sport might be effected by the coronavirus.

Stephen Bradley’s men won at the Showgrounds 3-2 earning their first victory at the venue since 2016. It gave them a three point lead over Dundalk and Bohemians and next up was a home game with Finn Harps but it turned out it was a game that wouldn’t take place for five months. 

League hibernation with COVID-19 lockdown

Five days after the game in Sligo at 7am in Washington DC (11am in Dublin) then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar gave a speech to the Irish public on TV starting with “I need to speak to you about the Coronavirus”.

The shutdown was about to start. Unlike some clubs in the league who made players and staff redundant during the lockdown, Rovers continued to pay their players - with the management and the players taking a voluntary paycut.

Lee Grace

There is a lot bigger things happening in the world with people losing their jobs and people losing their lives. We came together and thought it was the right call with a 25% cut. It is in the best interests of the club and we want the club to come back when football is back. 

The club instigated zoom fitness sessions and Rovers were allowed to begin collective training along with the other three clubs involved in Europe slightly ahead of the other league clubs.

Darren Dillon (Strength and Conditioning Coach)

We knew we could send them away for a couple of weeks downtime and they would just keep ticking over. We started to get rumours of a start date and we saw the Bundesliga come back. We reached out to the players to bring the group back together. I wrote out a programme that would suit all the players that we could deliver on Zoom with the minimum amount of equipment that we had. 

Rovers return to the pitch

When the league returned behind-closed-doors it was with half the fixtures lost to the COVID-19 - with the results from the fixtures from February and March retained.

Rovers game in Tallaght against Finn Harps on 1 August took place in the week that Bradley became the longest serving boss with the Hoops since John Giles’ spell in charge which ended in 1983. 

His team continued where they left off before the shutdown.bThey beat Harps 3-1 thanks to first half strikes from Jack Byrne, Dylan Watts and Aaron McEneff.

The result opened up a five point lead over Dundalk whose results nosedived on their return - they would win only one of their next five league games.

Crucial comeback against the Candystripes

Just twice in the season did Rovers trail in a game. They had come back from behind against Dundalk to win and they trailed to Walter Figueira’s 36th minute goal away in Derry up until they scored twice in a three minute period late on to win the match.

Chasing the game in the Bogside, Bradley utilised the newly allowed five substitute rule to full effect with a double switch at half time and then the trio of Rory Gaffney, Rhys Marshall and Dean Williams combined to create the equaliser with Williams’ header coming off the cross bar only to go back in off the unfortunate Derry defender Colm Horgan on 78 minutes.

Pico Lopes then popped up to the get the winner to move the Hoops six points clear of Bohs 

Lee Grace 

We showed the character in our team to respond in the second half. The gaffer always says be patient and the chances will come and when they do you have to take them and we did when they came up in Derry.

Scoreless stalemates

The Hoops marked the half way point of the shortened season with scoreless draws against St. Patrick’s Athletic and Shelbourne.

Pat’s player Shane Griffin’s early second half red in Inchicore saw the Saints sit even deeper, defending resolutely with the result that Rovers dropped their first points of the season.

Shels were then able to shut out Rovers in the next game which had some worried did the Hoops have enough creativity to overcome sides who were happy to defend deep? 

Graham Burke

People are coming to Tallaght and are not really attacking us. They are sitting deep and countering only. That is a team is showing a side respect, as they are saying ‘we can’t go toe-to-toe with you because you could pick us off’. 

Dublin Derby proves decisive

With Dundalk way off the pace, Bohemians looked to be the only side that could keep pace with Rovers. The Gypsies won four out of four after the league returned and it was a critical game in the title race when the Dublin Derby took place in Tallaght in the first weekend of September.

There had been a nine game period under Stephen Bradley when Rovers could manage to avoid defeat to Keith Long’s men just once but Rovers had turned that around to win three straight matches against the Gypsies prior to this derby game. 

Bohs arrived seeking the three points that would knock Rovers off the top of the table but they left Tallaght unhappy with a couple of penalty awards not given by referee Derek Tomney and trailing by five points after Danny Lafferty scored an early winner.

It gave the Hoops breathing room in the title race and they never looked back.

An easy 3-0 win in Cork was followed by Rovers’ first defeat since June 2019 - but there was no disgrace in that 2-0 loss as it was against European superheavyweights AC Milan in the Europa League Second qualifying round.

Top gear

Rovers hit top gear across a 17 day period following their exit from Europe, scoring fourteen goals and conceding just one - blitzing Waterford, Dundalk and Sligo Rovers. They beat Waterford in Tallaght 6-1 thanks to six different scorers to move eight points clear with six games remaining. 

Jack Byrne

We carried the momentum from the Milan match into the Waterford game and we played with a good tempo. There wasn’t any Milan hangover and we weren’t living off that game. 

You see people talking about our position on social media so we are well aware of where we are and what we need to do. There is that added pressure from ourselves. We know everyone is watching. We know nobody really wants us to win the league so we need a strong mentality to see it home. We have done the hard part and got ourselves in this unbelievable position. We don’t want any sob stories and we just want to go and grab it now.

When Rovers went to Oriel Park, it was clear the outgoing Champions were prioritising qualification for the Europa League group stages with manager Filippo Giovagnoli making ten changes from their previous game.

They were punished by Rovers who won 4-0 for their first win in Oriel Park since 2018.

The win was rounded off by a magnificent Jack Byrne goal from the most acute of angles moving the Hoops 11 points clear of Bohemians.

Five days later the Hoops hammered Sligo Rovers 4-0 and the title was tantalising close. 

Ronan Finn

We have been building over the last four years. It has been a project. It was never going to happen overnight. Winning the cup last year was huge. It has given us that confidence. We have silverware to show for our efforts. 

Graham Burke

The whole goal of the season was to go out and win the league and we have put ourselves in this great position now. The mentality in the group is completely different from when I started at Rovers.

The squad has a ruthlessness about it. We are not happy with being 3-0 up. We aren’t going to take our foot off the pedal. You can’t just show up and think oh we will probably win this. We have to run hard, we have to compete, we have to win second balls. We are going to play the brand of football that we play.

Stephen Bradley 

We are nearly there. Hopefully another win or two will do it for us. When I came in we were fighting for fourth place (in 2016) and hoping someone would win the cup for us to get into Europe. We have improved and now we are on the cusp of winning the league. 

Remarkably having played 14 games, results elsewhere in the league and in COVID-19 tests would mean that the Hoops wouldn’t have to kick another ball to win the league.

International call ups and COVID-19 crisis

Rovers were schedule to travel to Finn Park next but with international call-ups at senior and under-21 level they were granted a postponement but the international break did not go well. A Pico Lopes injury meant he never even travelled for Cape Verde’s games. Similarly Neil Farrugia was injured training with the under-21 team and he stayed in Ireland when the squad (including Liam Scales) lost in Italy.

Jack Byrne, who was part of the Ireland senior squad, contracted COVID-19. Separately coronavirus hit the Rovers squad and Rovers next three games were postponed following the precedent set by the FAI who postponed games previously due to the virus impacting Waterford, St. Patrick’s Athletic and Galway United.

Dalymount delight for Rovers

After the loss in Tallaght, Bohs won four of their next five games and had the chance to move within two points of Rovers before the Hoops were scheduled to play again. However, they dropped points in Dundalk and needed to avoid defeat to Finn Harps last weekend to keep the title race going.

Harps hadn’t won a league game in Dalymount since 1999 but they picked a great time for Shamrock Rovers to do so. When referee Neil Doyle blew his whistle in Phibsborough at 9.26pm on Saturday, the Hoops had won their 18th league title.                          

Quotes used in this article are taking from interviews with the author from throughout the season.

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