Longread: A detailed look at how the Hoops secured their second star
- Macdara Ferris
- Mon, Oct 31 2022
Updated Sunday 6 November
Macdara Ferris takes a detailed look at the 2022 league campaign for Shamrock Rovers as the Hoops won their 20th title on the 100 year anniversary of the club entering the League of Ireland.
In the 22 years since leaving Glenmalure Park in 1987 and finally moving into Tallaght Stadium in 2009, Shamrock Rovers won just the one league title. However, in the 14 seasons since the Hoops moved to their home in Dublin 24, they have won five league titles to move to a total of 20 championship crowns with a second star to now be added above the club crest.
They are now just one title away from equalling the record breaking Rovers four-in-a-row side from the last days of Milltown.
Two of those Tallaght titles were won by manager Michael O’Neill and Stephen Bradley has delivered a remarkable three-in-a-row, with the latest title coming in a season when the Head Coach came very close to leaving the club and in a year which has thrown up some massive personal challenges for Bradley and his family.
Lyons excels at left back
Injuries to Sean Kavanagh, Chris McCann, Neil Farrugia and Graham Burke stretched the Rovers squad somewhat at the start of the year.
With few options at left back after Farrugia picked up an injury in the first half of the opening game of the season (a 3-0 home win over UCD), Bradley deployed new signing Andy Lyons on the left which proved pivotal to the season’s success and Lyons’ €350,000 transfer to Blackpool for the 2023 season. He’d score five goals across Rovers’ six games in April.
Rovers lost their first two away games - falling to defeats in Derry (a rare late Pico Lopes error handing City the win) and at St. Patrick’s Athletic – and they didn’t win an away match until April.
They earned their first away point after a scoreless draw in Dundalk with Leon Pohls in his first league start earned his first league clean sheet in goal for the club as Alan Mannus was struck down with illness.
On the morning of the Dundalk match, I got a text from Jose [Ferrer – Rovers’ goalkeeping coach] who told me to be ready as Alan was sick. Later Al texted into the group chat saying he won't be able to play and wishing us all the best of luck. I went home after the game buzzing for the team as I kept a clean sheet and we got a point.
The Hoops’ away form all season kept them from running away with the league. At home in front of record breaking crowds (averaging 6,500 for Friday night football) they were imperious going undefeated winning 16 of their 18 league matches (with ten clean sheets).
They have won three league titles in a row suffering just the one league loss in Tallaght, with their only defeat way back in May 2021. After losing to the Saints in Inchicore, the Hoops beat Bohs 1-0 in Tallaght going on a 13 game unbeaten run – picking up 33 points from the 39 on offer.
I think it was really important for us to get back to winning ways against Bohs. We were really frustrated after the defeat to St. Pats as we thought we'd played really well but got nothing to show from it. We wanted to start wracking up the clean sheets again as that is what we based our success on. It is even sweeter when it comes against Bohs. Sometimes you just have to dig in and show a bit of steel and I think we did. These games are never the prettiest and swing from minute-to-minute and it is just about the result at the end.
To be champions it is a requirement to have good home form. Over the last few years, we have been getting stronger and stronger at home. That comes from the support we have, you see the crowd and large attendances we have.
Gaffney’s Dublin derby delights
Rory Gaffney was key to Rovers’ success in the season. With his superb hold up play and strategic goalscoring. He scored ten league goals, less than Burke who scored 11 (including five penalties), but top scored for Rovers with 15 goals in all competitions. Seven of Gaffney’s league goals came against the Dublin clubs. Remarkably the striker scored the winner for Rovers in the derbies in Tallaght twice against Bohs, twice against Shels and once against St. Pats.
A crucial come-from-behind point was earned in Tallaght in mid-March and put down an earlier marker for Rovers’ resilience which was tested throughout the season and preserved the teams unbeaten run going back to May 2021. Sligo Rovers were the last team to win a league game in Dublin 24 and were 2-0 up at the break.
Bradley substituted Barry Cotter at half-time (he would start only three more games for Rovers before being loaned to St. Pats in the summer) bringing Jack Byrne and Farrugia off the bench as the Hoops fought back to a 2-2 draw.
In the first half we played well and played some good football but if you give Sligo chances they are clinical and had two good finishes. They put us on the back foot being 2-0 up at half time. The lads coming off our bench made an impact. To have that attacking prowess when you are going for the game, to come on and boost us is brilliant.
The previous year Rovers were the specialists in scoring crucial goals in the dying embers of the game breaking oppositions hearts. In 2022, there weren’t as many late late shows but Shelbourne suffered at the hands of the Hoops on a couple of occasions. The first time was in Tolka Park in early April when Aaron Greene got the winner in the final minute.
𝙄𝙉𝘾𝙍𝙀𝘿𝙄𝘽𝙇𝙀 👏— SSE Airtricity League (@SSEAirtricityLg) April 8, 2022
Aaron Greene smashes the ball into the roof of the net from outside the box to give his side the lead, that could be the winner with just minutes left.. 😳@shelsfc 1-2 @ShamrockRovers
Sign up 📺 | https://t.co/7rzXOfm8p9#LOI | #LOITV pic.twitter.com/iWDx27mqHM
Lincoln lose out on Bradley
The biggest hurdle that Rovers faced in retaining their title was in early May when it looked likely that Lincoln City would successfully headhunt Stephen Bradley as their new manager.
The Hoops Head Coach had to grapple with the decision to possibly leave Rovers in a week when he was also dealing with the death of his grandmother. Bradley informed the Hoops and Lincoln City on the morning of the home Friday game against Finn Harps (a 3-1 win) that he would remain in his role at Shamrock Rovers.
It was emotional. There were talks going on with both clubs. I had a good conversation with (club captain) Ronan Finn, on behalf of the players. That was important. There were really good conversations with Ciaran (Medlar – Rovers’ chairperson), the board, with Dermot and Ray (Dermot Desmond and Ray Wilson who own 25% each of Shamrock Rovers). I sat down with the people around me and had a good chat. I just felt this is where I need to be.
Our number one (target) is the league; we need to go and defend our title but Europe is obviously right there. I felt we let one get away from us last year, we didn't perform over two legs (against Flora Tallinn in the play-off) and we want to try and get in that position again and go one better. Staying isn't all about Europe. It is about our progression as a club in all aspects. We can push on and improve what we did last year.
I'm really happy that he chose to stay. It is a really tight knit group of players and staff. We are still learning and improving under him and his staff. He demands high standards and I'm really enjoying working under him.
Outs and Ins
While the Hoops held onto Bradley, Lincoln did capture Danny Mandroiu in July as they exercised the five figure release clause for the 23-year-old player who was out of contract at the end of the season. Mandroiu’s creativity and goals (15 goals in 35 league appearances) were missed by Rovers especially as Jack Byrne missed the critical middle part of the season. The Irish international didn’t start a league game across June, July and August due to injury.
Rovers’ unbeaten run of 13 league matches came to an end with a 1-0 loss in Drogheda in a game the Hoops dominated. They also lost their next away game by the same scoreline in Dundalk. That was in mid-June but they wouldn’t lose again in the league till early September by which time they had qualified for the Europa Conference League group stages.
Bradley wasn’t in the dugout in Dundalk for ‘family reasons’. The Rovers boss explained later in the week that his eight year old son Josh had been diagnosed with leukaemia. The manager contemplated stepping back as manager during his son’s treatment but with the support of his wife Emma and his backroom team Bradley continued in the role.
A crucial signing for Rovers came in July when Dan Cleary came in just as Pico Lopes was ruled out for what turned out to be three months. At 26 years of age Cleary helped lower the average age of a Rovers squad a touch and with seven players in their 30s and one in the 40s (Alan Mannus).
It is clear that one challenge for the Hoops if they are to keep the trophies coming is that they will need to refresh their squad over the coming seasons.
If you were saying at the start of the season you’d have qualified for the group stages with Pico (Lopes) andChris McCann injured, Danny Mandriou having left the club, Jack Byrne only coming back from injury, Graham Burke has been injured recently….it shows you the quality that’s in the squad.
Candystripes title challenge
Rovers struggled away from home against higher quality opposition in Europe (Ludogorets, Ferencvaros and Molde) and prioritised their team selection to ensure that they could maintain the gap over Derry City who proved to be the biggest title challengers over the campaign.
Having returned from a European tie in North Macedonia early on Friday morning in early August, the Hoops faced a difficult trip to face Derry City the following Sunday. The scoreless draw in Derry was a point well earned in a game where the Candystripes certainly felt unlucky not to win – Alan Mannus’ penalty save went a long way to stopping them.
It left the Candystripes eight points behind the Hoops.
🧤 l Alan Mannus made a crucial save to deny Will Patching from the penalty spot last night...— Shamrock Rovers FC ☘️ (@ShamrockRovers) August 13, 2022
A big moment in the game that helped earn a valuable point on the road 👏 pic.twitter.com/ALucY1NPDc
Derry is a very difficult place to go. I think we have to be happy with a draw especially off the back of all we had, coming back from our European trip. We were backs to the walls for a good bit of the second half. We can do both sides of the game; when we have to dig in, we can dig in. I think it was an all round professional performance. We had to make some big blocks and big saves from Al.
You've seen in the last few weeks Al has put in some incredible performances. I don't think he has put a foot wrong this season. Against Derry and the European stuff, it showed that when he is needed in big moments, he always produces. It is absolutely incredible the calibre of saves he makes. It is frightening. I've never seen it from a goalkeeper ever. I think he is phenomenal.
We want to be doing this year on year in Europe so winning the league to enter Europe via the champions route is massive. We are going for three in a row and so it is a huge goal to retain the title again.
In mid-September Rovers won a league game by four goals for the first since time since October 2020 when they beat Finn Harps 5-1 in Tallaght (with a resurgent Neil Farrugia scoring twice). The victory came just three days after the Hoops had won their first point in a group stage game (a scoreless draw in Tallaght against Djurgaarden in the Europa Conference League).
The result left Rovers four points clear of Derry at the top of the table with a game in hand and eight matches remaining for the Hoops.
I’m delighted with both the result and the performance (against Harps) because it is a tricky one after the high of Thursday night and that occasion (against Djurgaarden). A lot of people outside the team would have seen that match as a 'so-called' bigger game but we felt today was as big if not bigger considering we want to win the league. It was great that the players were so professional and performed at a real high level.
I’m delighted for Neil for those two years he has probably only been fit for four or five months. It is great to see him back and doing what he is doing - playing with that freedom and he looks back to the level that he was at UCD before that injury. He has had to be so patient and mentally so strong to work so hard in isolation. Defences are scared of him when he gets the ball as they have to overload to defend against him and that unbalances them and gives us a chance to hurt them in other areas.
With so many matches to be played – 54 for the season – Rovers ended up playing two games across a five day period that was designated an international ‘break’ at the end of September. They did so without Andy Lyons who was on Ireland under-21 duty.
After a pretty dour scoreless draw against Shelbourne in Tolka Park, UCD came to Tallaght and while the Hoops dominated the chances they could only win 1-0 thanks to a Neil Farrugia goal. The clean sheet saw Alan Mannus equal Barry Murphy’s club record of 97 league clean sheets – he would claim the record outright in Rovers’ final home game of the season, leaving him just the one short of Alan O'Neill's Rovers record of 120 shutouts in all competitions.
At full time against the Students, the frustration amongst the home fans was audible. However, if the supporters were nervous about Derry City coming up behind – as the Candystripes went on a run of six league wins in a row – there was no panic from the Rovers management and players with the team five points clear with six games remaining.
If we took a few more of our chances (against UCD), I think people will look at our performance differently but because it was 1-0 people got frustrated. We had six really good chances, apart from the goal, but it was all about getting the three points which we did. We weren't clinical enough in the final third but that happens sometimes.
I think we were comfortable enough against UCD but when it is only 1-0 it can be a bit edgy towards the last ten minutes as you haven't scored again. We dominated possession and kept the ball quite well. We just didn't get the second and third goal that would have eased things but overall we were happy to pick up the three points and move onto the next game in Sligo.
The Hoops put in one of their best performances of the season in the Showgrounds on the first day of October beating Sligo Rovers 3-1, before Shelbourne came to Tallaght Stadium and twice took the lead with the Hoops still trailing going into the 83th minute.
Dan Cleary equalised with his second goal of the game before Rory Gaffney scored a superb winner in the fifth minute of injury time to keep Rovers five points clear at the top.
Big credit to Shels and the work that they did. They have made it difficult for us a couple of times this year. Rory has been unbelievable this season. He is a great person to have around the group. He is a gentleman. He has standards and he sets them as well. People follow him. The more people like Rory we have in the dressing room the better, he is a real top top player.
I was delighted for him to get the winner and you could see with the reaction of the players how highly regarded he is with the squad and the club. The celebrations at the end were brilliant. We were probably due a late winner as we hadn't had one for a while.
The critical moment in the title race?— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) October 9, 2022
With added-time already up, Rory Gaffney wins it with a sublime volley.
Derry City looked to have hope when Shels led twice, but once again Shamrock Rovers act when it matters most. #rtesoccer pic.twitter.com/gaxbkr7BrH
The Hoops followed that up with a 1-1 draw in Drogheda - Rovers sixth point from five games on the road. However that meant when St. Pats came to Tallaght for Rovers’ penultimate home game of the season, the Hoops knew that a win over the Saints and against Derry City in the next league game and they would be champions again.
They fell behind to an early St. Pats goal but Rovers rallied to win 4-1 on a night when Derry City drew with Shelbourne seeing the Candystripes drop eight points behind the Hoops with the City only having three games remaining.
We try and not let the outside noise distract us. Others like the media and our rivals all want to make it a title race. At the end of the game in Drogheda, we looked at the positive side of that point. You can see the importance of Rory's late goal against Shelbourne. That really was a massive goal and a big moment in the season. We knew going into the game against St. Pats what we had to do. We spoke about it before the game. We won and luckily the result elsewhere went for us (with Derry dropping points) so that is huge step forward.We are within touching distance (of the title).
The Hoops would secure the title just three days later and without kicking a ball as Derry City couldn’t get a win away to Sligo. It meant Bradley’s side won the league with two games to spare becoming just the fourth team to win three league titles in a row.
The feat was first managed by Cork United in the early 1940s, Waterford in the late 1960s, a Shamrock Rovers side who went on to win four-in-a-row in the mid-1980s and most recently by Dundalk in the 2010s.
I was watching the Derry game on Monday and it was a bit of a weird feeling sitting in your living room and you've won the league. We'll take it any way we can.
For a record 20th time, Shamrock Rovers are Champions of Ireland ⭐️⭐️— Shamrock Rovers FC ☘️ (@ShamrockRovers) October 24, 2022
A special group. A special team. A special club 💚
Trophy presentation will take place on Sunday at Tallaght Stadium 🏆 pic.twitter.com/nlKxBnBIVU
There was an emotional trophy presentation in Tallaght after Rovers’ 1-0 win over Derry City in their final home game of the campaign. Stephen Bradley's son Josh lifted the trophy alongside Hoops skipper Ronan Finn on the pitch after the final whistle.
The Hoops home record across the three-in-a-row reads P45 W35 D9 L1 F96 A27.
Our record at home is incredible and there is a lot that plays in to that; The groundsmen that give us a carpet of a pitch to play on. It is the crowd that are hostile for the other teams and it is the players who go and grab the game and are aggressive at home.To win three leagues in a row and only lose one home game in that period is incredible and one that we are really proud of.
The Hoops won their final game of the season away to UCD 2-0 (their 17th clean sheet of the campaign), breaking by a point their club record of 78 points earned in a single season (2021) and they equaled their club record of number of wins in a league campaign of 24 that they earned last season.
Shamrock Rovers finished the season with a league unbeaten run of 29 league games stretching back into last year and are just two undefeated games off a run of 31 matches across the 1963 to 1966 seasons.
Quotes used in this article are taking from interviews with the author during the season.
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