How Shamrock Rovers won the league - 19:25 is Bradley time for the Hoops with late goals and league title success

Sun, Oct 31 2021
Rovers celebrating a Danny Mandroiu goal in win over Finn Harps in October

Rovers celebrating a Danny Mandroiu goal in win over Finn Harps in October Credit: Muller Santos (ETPhotos)

Macdara Ferris takes a detailed look at how Shamrock Rovers won their 19th title extending their record of title wins to go with their record of 25 FAI Cups.

Squad game

While the Hoops had lost two of the best players in the close season – Jack Byrne and Aaron McEneff, and with Greg Bolger departing for Sligo Rovers, they brought in Sean Gannon and Sean Hoare from Dundalk, Chris McCann from Oldham Athletic and Danny Mandroiu from Bohemians. It meant the Hoops had strengthened their squad from drawing three players from two teams that had expectations of challenging for the title.

However, there was to be no Shamrock Rovers II team in 2021 as the opposition from virtually all the other clubs in the League of Ireland saw the FAI not grant a spot in the First Division to Rovers’ B team.

The Late Late Show on repeat

Due to continued presence of COVID-19, the season began late and behind closed doors on the St. Patrick’s Day weekend and it took a late goal to earn Rovers a point in their first match. 

It looked like an 87th minute own goal from Roberto Lopes would hand the Hoops an opening day defeat to St. Patrick’s Athletic. However, Aaron Greene scored with a minute remaining to earn Rovers a 1-1 draw in Tallaght. 

Stephen Bradley

We don’t stop believing in what we do, whether we are 1-0 up or 1-0 down, we keep moving the ball. We know a chance will come and it did.

After a 2-1 home win over Dundalk with new signing Danny Mandroiu on the scoresheet, an error gave Sligo Rovers an 82nd minute lead in the Showgrounds as Walter Figueira scored only for Rory Gaffney to equalise two minutes from time. 

Rovers then went on a run of seven consecutive league wins starting with a 2-0 victory in Derry with Graham Burke scoring from the half way line. 

Next was the first of three wins in the season over Longford Town thanks to injury time goals – this was a 2-1 win earned in the 93rd minute by Sean Gannon in Tallaght. It was a victory that left a three way tie at the top of the early season table between Rovers, St. Patrick’s Athletic and Sligo Rovers.

Danny Mandroiu’s scored the winner in Drogheda with a goal in the fifth minute of injury time giving his side additional points from goals scored in the 87th minute and later in four of their first six league game. The Hoops then picked up their fifth win in a row in all competitions against Bohs with a 2-1 home victory in the Dublin derby at Tallaght.

Record Breakers

When Rovers beat Waterford 3-0 on the May Bank Holiday Monday they stretched their unbeaten league run that begun towards the end of the 2019 season, running through all 18 games of the 2020 and to 31 games in total beating the previous record of 30 held jointly by a Rovers side from the 1926/27 season and Athlone Town in 1980/81.

Rovers began the second series of games with another late goal against St. Patrick’s Athletic as Danny Mandroiu’s 92ndminute goal secured a 2-1 win for the Hoops.

Joey O’Brien

You can’t beat a last minute winner. It was a tough hard game with tackles flying in. It is a local derby so it makes the win that bit sweeter. It was first against second in the league which added to it and made the win that bit more important.

Rory Gaffney

We have shown great character with the amount of times we’ve been behind this season or we have had to score late goals to get results. The manager wants us to play football until the final whistle and not just boot the ball into the box. We are to stick to our principles and play football and teams have cracked under the pressure. 

The Hoops followed that up by drawing at home to Derry City with a controversial goal as Liam Scales took a throw ahead of where Derry’s Joe Thompson had deflected the ball out of play with Rory Gaffney going on to equalise.

Stephen Bradley

It was very clever from Liam. The Derry players were waiting for the ball that went out and Liam went and picked another one up and played on. He saw it early, hurt them and we got our reward. 

The draw left Rovers’ remarkable record unbeaten run at Played 33, Won 26, Drawn 7, Lost 0, Goals For 70, Goals Against 14. 

Injuries hit the Hoops

The draw against Derry was the last game of the unbeaten run as the Hoops lost 2-1 away to Dundalk in the following match – their last league defeat prior to that had come 606 days previously also in Oriel Park.

Stephen McPhail

I’m really proud of everyone involved in that unbeaten run that began in September 2019. The mentality of the group over the last few years has really been amazing. That stems from the manager, through the staff and from the players. I think we will look back in years to come and see how special it is with that group of players. I think they deserve so much credit.

With a large injury list against Dundalk, the Rovers substitutes had an average age of 19 and between them they had played just 27 first team league fixtures for the Hoops with five players named yet to play in the Premier Division. 

Chasing the game, Bradley made just one sub, bringing Dean Williams on with four minutes to go. This was reflective maybe a certain lack of trust in the younger players, the club of course had hoped to have a Rovers II team playing in the First Division to give these young players more game time.

As it was Williams and Darragh Nugent would go on loan to Longford later in the season.

Across the next eight games, Rovers would win just two and draw three in a period that coincided with a time when their squad was severly stretched due to injuries - captain Ronan Finn missing four matches, Joey O’Brien five and Dylan Watts seven.

It was back-to-back defeats for Stephen Bradley’s side as Sligo Rovers came to Tallaght and won 1-0. The victory for the away team saw the Hoops drop into second place behind the Bit O’ Red.

Stephen Bradley

It is time for people to stand up and be counted and I know there are players in the dressingroom who will do that. 

Despite their injury difficulties, the Hoops got all three points in Longford with a 95th minute winner from Rory Gaffney in the next match.

Stephen McPhail

The mentality is huge – you can see that with the last minute winners. They are no flukes. People are talking about it as if we are lucky. I know we are not. In Longford at half-time, one of the players mentioned it might take 95 minutes to get the winner and he was spot on.

As soon as he came out with that, I was thinking this is what this group is all about. Teams are setting up a lot deeper against us as they try to catch us on the break. It is difficult to play against that but when bodies are tired in the last few minutes our lads just seem to grow. For me it is a great sign. 

The fans return

In June, fans finally returned to League of Ireland grounds as COVID-19 restrictions began to somewhat ease.

Tallaght Stadium was designated as a test venue by the government and was able to host 1,000 supporters for the 1-1 draw against Finn Harps, 469 days since 7,522 fans packed the venue to watch the Hoops beat Dundalk 3-2 in February 2020. 

Rovers ended the weekend top of the table by one more goal scored than Sligo Rovers with the teams level on points and goal difference.

Gary O’Neill

I got goosebumps from the noise that was made by the fans. When we came out for the warm up ahead of kick-off, there was close to capacity allowed. It was so good to hear them.

League low point

The 1-0 loss to Bohemians in Dalymount Park in June proved the low point of the league campaign and when they followed that up with a draw at home to Drogheda United in front of 1,000 spectators at the half-way point of the league campaign there was a three way tie at the top of the table with St. Patrick’s Athletic and Sligo Rovers.

However the wins for the Hoops began to return as the injured players also returned to the Rovers squad. There were five consecutive league wins as the Hoops juggled four European matches during that period (winning three games in Europe on the trot for the first time in the club’s history).

Signed in the summer transfer window, Richie Towell slotted into the team making his debut in the 3-1 home win over his former club Dundalk at the start of July, the week prior to Rovers’ elimination from the Champions League qualifiers to Slovan Bratislava 3-2 on aggregate.

COVID in the camp

The next league game was a 4-2 win over Derry City in a dramatic day in the Brandywell that was a pivotal point in Rovers retaining their league title.

The Hoops were hit with COVID-19 in their camp and the Hoops scrambled an underage squad to travel to Derry in case they needed to play if too many of their Premier Division players tested positive or were deemed close contacts of the back room staff member who had COVID-19.

When the team sheet was handed out before kick off, Sean Gannon was named in the starting lineup with captain Ronan Finn on the bench and Richie Towell not included in the match day squad as they still awaited clearance for players. 

But Finn ended up starting the game, as Gannon dropped out, and Towell came off the bench in the second half to cap a remarkable comeback 4-2 win for Rovers who were 2-0 down after 31 minutes.

Richie Towell

It was really strange. I'm playing professionally 15 years and I've never seen anything like it. We were waiting to see could we even go into the dressing room before we could then go out and warm up. 

It was really disruptive and it probably showed in the way we started the game. Even though we were two goals down, we always knew we could win. The Gaffer (Stephen Bradley) and Glenn (Cronin) at half-time said we could go out and win by four or five goals to two and they were dead right. It shows the character and the belief that we have in the group.

Crucially they backed that win up with a 3-1 victory the following week over second placed St. Pat’s, with Danny Mandroiu scoring twice along with a goal from Robeto Lopes. The victory moved Rovers three points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand and the daylight they earned ahead of the teams below them was coming at a crucial time of the season.

Stephen Bradley

We knew Pat’s were going to come and press us high and we knew we'd have to take the energy out of them and we did that. We moved the ball really well. In the second half we were ruthless and were clinical in the final third. It is an important time. We are stronger in the second part of the season and I think we are seeing that now.

Liam Scales got the customary injury time winner for Rovers against Longford in early August. His goal meant the Hoops had led Longford for just seven minutes in 290 minutes (including injury time) of league action between the teams and yet still claimed all nine points from those games.

Stephen Bradley

We had to wait till late and some weeks that is the way it is. We keep trusting what we do and we don't get frustrated. You could hear the players on the pitch saying 'it's coming, it's coming'. We have done it so many times. We take the legs out of teams; we tire them out mentally and physically.

That victory came in between Rovers’ home and away wins over Albanian side KF Teuta and they followed that up with a 1-0 win in Drogheda thanks to an Aaron Greene goal.

That kept their lead at the top the table to three points from St. Patrick’s Athletic with a game in hand as Sligo Rovers dropped off to a dozen points behind the Hoops.

Four-in-a-row

The Shamrock Rovers supporters rightly sing about their historic four-in-a-row league title success but they hadn’t seen four defeats in a row since 2012.

However across a two week period the Hoops suffered four losses as they were eliminated from Europe (losing home and away in a 5-2 defeat on aggregate to Estonian champions Flora Tallinn), exited the FAI Cup at the hands of Bohs in Dalymount Park before a 2-1 league loss away to Finn Harps – Rovers’ first defeat to Harps since 2008.

Stephen Bradley had to cobble together a side for that game in Finn Park where he could only name six substitutes on the nine player bench. He included four teenagers who between them had started just one league game for the Hoops. 

Missing for Rovers that night was Roberto Lopes (World Cup qualifying duty with Cape Verde), Ronan Finn and Danny Mandroiu (both suspended) and Lee Grace, Sean Hoare, Sean Kavanagh and Neil Farrugia all out injured.

Bradley had signed Barry Cotter earlier in the week, following Liam Scales departure to Celtic, and with one training session under his belt he was drafted into the starting XI against Harps.

Like in the Dundalk defeat earlier in the season, there was just one sub made with Aidomo Emakhu coming on but he would feature in nine of the next 11 matches as Bradley showed faith in the young teenage striker.

Rovers got back to winning ways with a 2-0 win over Waterford to avoid losing five competitive games in a row for the first time since 2005 to move three clear of Pat’s with two games in hand.

Stephen Bradley

A lot has been made of our last few results from outside - there's been a lot of noise. There was never any panic. We just needed to relax and trust what we do. Go back to basics and we did that. We focus on us and if we do what we can do, it doesn't matter what anyone else does.

The end of September was a key week when the Hoops faced second and third in the table. First up was a tie against third placed Sligo Rovers in the Showgrounds and Rory Gaffney grabbed the only goal of the game.

Lee Grace

It was windy and rainy and the pitch was digging up. We attacked very well and defended when we had to. At the end they were throwing a bit at us and we had to put our bodies on the line. I said it to Pico (Lopes) after the game we love that kind of stuff, doing the ugly side of it, winning and keeping a clean sheet. 

For the third time against St. Pat’s in the next match, Rovers scored late to take points off the Saints with Melvin Lambert’s 92nd minute own goal handing the Hoops the win. It put Rovers nine points clear at the top of the league with nine matches to go and with a game at hand over the Athletic.

With 50% stadium capacity allowed as COVID-19 restrictions were eased again, close to 4,000 spectators watched the Hoops beat Derry City 2-1 in Tallaght.

While next they had a disappointing 2-1 defeat to Dundalk in Oriel Park, the 2-0 home win over Sligo Rovers, with goals from Aaron Greene and Danny Mandroiu, meant the Hoops needed just seven points from their remaining six matches to guarantee the title making a return to Tallaght.

Aaron Greene

We didn't want one team coming here beating us twice in Tallaght. Sligo came up and won here during the season and they kind of rubbed it in our faces. They walked away like they had won the league so we showed them today.

Rovers trailed 1-0 at half-time in Tallaght next against a Bohemians side who had a man advantage following Roberto Lopes’ red card late in the first half. However, the Hoops rallied in the second half, equalised through Richie Towell and had even squandered chances to win the match late on.

Five days later playing in Longford in incessant rain, the Hoops put in a professional performance with Graham Burke coming off the bench to get the only goal of the game in the 66th minute to leave the Hoops with one hand on the league trophy.

Last Friday night, the Hoops knew they needed one more win to secure the title. With COVID-19 restrictions fully lifted, 7,030 packed into Tallaght Stadium and the Hoops supporters were put at ease inside first few minutes as Danny Mandroiu put his side 1-0 up against Finn Harps.

He grabbed a second on 24 minutes before Aidomo Emakhu, on the week of his 18th birthday, was sprung from the bench to score seven minutes from time.

At the final whistle, the Hoops supporters ran onto the field to engulf their heroes.

Their team had secured their 19th league title in dominate fashion – 13 points clear of second placed St. Pat’s – leaving the club just one title away from putting a second star above their club crest.

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

 

 

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