David Wilson reports from Tallaght Stadium
Shamrock Rovers made a huge statement regarding their title winning aspirations as they defeated arch-rivals Dundalk in a thriller in Tallaght.
Goals from Dylan Watts, Roberto Lopes and a wonder strike from Jack Byrne earned the Hoops the bragging rights in what shouldn’t be the only cracker between these two sides this season.
A packed and star-studded audience flooded into Tallaght Stadium in the hope of witnessing a classic between the top two teams in the country, FAI Cup champions Shamrock Rovers and premier division champions Dundalk F.C.
Mick McCarthy, Terry Connor, Stephen Kenny and President Michael D Higgins were keen onlookers on what turned out to be an entertaining night in the nation’s capital.
The opening 15 minutes were largely what you would expect, a cagey affair. Rovers displayed some neat intricate passages of passing while Dundalk looked to Michael Duffy down the left to provide their most dangerous attacking threat.
It wasn’t until the 17th minute when Dylan Watts fed an incisive pass down the right channel to Aaron Greene when the crowd were presented with their opening chance. As Greene broke the offside trap, probably looking more offside than onside, he found himself one on one with Gary Rogers.
Greene never looked composed or settled and his left-footed effort lacked the necessary curl to find the far corner.
Just three minutes later Jack Byrne sprayed a ball out to the wide right to the skipper Ronan Finn. His cross was diverted goalward by Watts where Rogers blocked it before the ball fell kindly back to Watts as he volleyed home to send the home crowd into raptures.
The game was now alive. Dundalk immediately poured forward and were rewarded just two minutes later.
A driven Duffy corner saw the majority of the Dundalk attackers run to the near post. However, Jordan Flores had made his run to the back stick where he volleyed first time, almost Zidane-esque alla Champions League final in Hampden park, acrobatically getting his knee over the ball and thundering his strike past Alan Mannus. A magnificent goal befitting the occasion.
After the equaliser it was the away side who were in the ascendancy. Cammy Smith got on the end of a superb flowing Lilywhite move. The Scot twisted and turned before shooting from 16 yards where is effort was blocked by a combination of Lee Grace and Alan Mannus.
Smith again had another effort just minutes later as his shot from a Dane Massey pass tamely rolled into Mannus’ gloves.
Right on half-time, Rovers were awarded a free kick for a Shields foul on Gregg Bolger. Just 20 yards out Byrne had the effort on goal, but it lacked any quality as it sailed miles over the bar in Rovers only chance of the second part of the first half.
The second half started with the Hoops in the driving seat. Some neat, crisp, midfield passing between Messrs Byrne, McEneff and Watts resulted in Shields going in the book for persistent fouling, and Flores and Hoban also receiving yellow cards for mistimed lunges in the first seven minutes.
Greene and McEneff both saw efforts from free kicks beat Rogers but also not find the target as the Hoops continued to press.
Byrne continued to drop deep in an effort to influence the game. His pass was blocked in the middle of the park, where it was seized upon by a group of Dundalk players.
The ball found its way to substitute Dan Kelly, where he slipped in Patrick Hoban with a neat through ball. Hoban found himself in space with all the time and dinked his finish expertly over the on-rushing Alan Mannus in the 63rd minute. The large travelling support was sent into delirium as Hoban showed Greene how to finish a one-on-one.
Rovers manager Stephen Bradley immediately brought on new signing Rory Gaffney in hope of a finding an equaliser.
Gaffney immediately showed his quality offering more of a physical presence and providing some dynamic incisive runs into the channels.
In the 71st minute Rovers earned their deserved equaliser. A corner from the right was met by the Cape Verdean international Roberto Lopes which left Rogers with little chance of saving it.
With ten minutes left Jack Byrne nearly got the winner. His run across the Dundalk back four allowed the Irish international to try and curl his strike into the far corner, however it didn’t curl enough luckily for Dundalk.
Just three minutes later, Byrne did find his range. Some well worked passing down the rovers right saw Bolger find Byrne in space in the no.10 position. Shields couldn’t get close to him as he had been booked, Byrne wormed and weaved his way on to his supposed weaker left foot where curled one beautifully beyond the clutches of Rogers. A goal worthy of winning any game, just a pity international manager Mick McCarthy left before Byrne’s special strike.
Will Patching and Georgie Kelly were introduced as the champions went in search of their equaliser.
As time ticked beyond the 90, a cross from Shields was met by Dan Kelly at the back post, Hoban looked certain to score until somehow Lopes got his head to the ball to clear from underneath his own crossbar.
As the final whistle went, the home crowd went wild, finally beating Dundalk in their home ground in what will feel as a massive weight of their shoulders.
An enthralling game, a magnificent advertisement for the league, this title race should be a classic if it is to replicate anything like tonight’s game.
Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Lee Grace, Roberto Lopes, Joey O’Brien (Liam Scales 13); Neil Farrugia, Gregg Bolger, Dylan Watts (Rory Gaffney 64), Ronan Finn (C), Aaron McEneff; Jack Byrne; Aaron Greene
Unused Substitutes: Leon Pohls, Daniel Lafferty, Sean Callan, Dean Williams, Brandon Kavanagh
Yellow Card: Aaron McEneff 39
Dundalk F.C: Gary Rogers; Sean Gannon, Sean Hoare, Andy Boyle, Dane Massey; Chris Shields (C), Greg Sloggett (Georgie Kelly 85); Michael Duffy, Jordan Flores (Daniel Kelly 58), Cammy Smith (Will Patching 77); Patrick Hoban
Unused Substitutes: Aaron McCarey (GK), Brian Gartland, Daniel Cleary, Stefan Colovic
Yellow Card: Chris Shields 46, Jordan Flores 51, Patrick Hoban 52, Gregg Sloggett 76, Sean Hoare 95
Extratime.ie Man of the Match: Roberto Lopes