Dave Donnelly reports from Tallaght Stadium
Shamrock Rovers need as little as five points from their remaining four fixtures to end a nine-year league title drought following a comfortable 4-0 win over Sligo Rovers at Tallaght Stadium.
An early goal from Ronan Finn settled the nerves for Stephen Bradley’s side before goals from Graham Burke, Jack Byrne and Dylan Watts rounded off a comprehensive victory.
With second-placed Bohemians facing a far from straightforward derby clash away to Shelbourne on Saturday, Rovers could potentially seal the title in Ballybofey next week.
The away game with Finn Harps may be postponed due to four members of the Rovers squad being called up for international duty but the opportunity may be too good for the Hoops to pass up.
They are certainly playing with a style and confidence that suggests they would be happy to take on all-comers, though they did benefit from some early fortune on Friday night.
A mistake from Sligo keeper Ed McGinty, who himself earned his first call-up to the Ireland under-21s today, paved the way for what was a routine win for the home side.
There was plenty to like about the build-up play that saw captain Finn cross the pitch from his right wing-back berth to take an inside ball from Aaron Greene.
He did well to swivel and volley the ball goalwards but McGinty seemed to have it easily covered, only for the ball to squirm out of his grasp, between his legs and trickle over the line.
It was a cruel lesson for the Glasgow-born stopper who has grown to become on the league’s best goalkeepers but he would redeem himself with a series of fine stops to keep the score down.
Liam Buckley lined his side up in an attacking 4-4-2 formation and they caused the home side problems in the immediate aftermath of the opener.
A slick passing move from side to side ended with Ryan De Vries shooting over the bar before another incisive move ended with Junior steering Jesse Dever’s cross narrowly wide.
Top scorer Rónán Coughlan blasted a free kick over the bar as Sligo enjoyed the better of the play in the lead-up to the half-hour.
Rovers had plenty of joy down the left, where Neil Farrugia was up against an out-of-position Darragh Noone, and Aaron Greene should have done better when teed up by the wing back.
It was when Sligo looked at their most comfortable that the Hoops struck for the second time, six minutes before the break.
Rovers were repeatedly repelled by a well-organised Sligo rearguard and Jack Byrne was forced to drop deeper and deeper to find space.
And how the Ireland midfielder made use of it, sweeping an inch-perfect ball from near the halfway line over the head of Garry Buckley to the feet of Burke.
The striker trapped it perfectly with the outside of his left boot before steadying himself and steering the ball coolly past McGinty.
McGinty was at his best moments later as another one-touch move saw Greene square for Aaron McEneff and his well-struck shot was beaten clear by the netminder.
The keeper saved from McEneff once more moments later and was at his best again two minutes from the break as he denied Greene one-on-one.
Rovers’ high press caused Sligo issues and a misplaced clearance from McGinty was nudged by Finn to Greene, who was unfortunate to see his well-struck effort crash back off the post.
Byrne did manage to make it 3-0 just before the hour as he arrived late to finish off a dizzying passing move, taking Burke’s cutback and sliding it into the bottom corner.
Sligo’s best chance of the half came on the break as Coughlan exposed Rovers’ high line to race through on goal but he couldn’t pick out Junior arriving at the far post.
There followed a bizarre period where Rovers played four minutes with ten men after Byrne opted to leave the pitch early as Bradley prepared a triple substitution.
The midfielder didn’t appear to be injured and was forced to return from the stands when play stopped and take a yellow card for leaving the pitch without permission.
His replacement was Dylan Watts and he rounded off the scoring within three minutes of his introduction, profiting from the unselfishness of fellow sub Rhys Marshall to stroke the ball home.
Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Lee Grace, Joey O’Brien (Rhys Marshall 75), Liam Scales; Ronan Finn (Rhys Marshall 75), Gary O’Neill, Aaron McEneff, Jack Byrne (Dylan Watts 75), Neil Farrugia (Danny Lafferty 79); Graham Burke, Aaron Greene (Dean Williams 79).
Subs not used: Leon Pohls (gk), Thomas Oluwa.
Booked: Joey O’Brien (43), Jack Byrne (74).
Sligo Rovers: Ed McGinty; Darragh Noone, Kyle McFadden, Garry Buckley (David Cawley , Teemu Penninkangas; Jesse Devers (Alex Cooper 64), Niall Morahan, Will Seymore, Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe; Rónán Coughlan, Ryan De Vries (Lewis Bank 64).
Subs not used: Luke McNicholas (gk), John Russell, Scott Lynch, Ronan Murray.
Booked: Kyle McFadden (86), Will Seymore (90+3).
Referee: Damien McGraith.
Extratime.ie Player of the Match: Gary O’Neill (Shamrock Rovers).