THERE was no happy return to Tallaght Stadium for Stephen Kenny, with the Dundalk boss suffering the frustration that dogged his short-lived stint in the home dugout.
Dundalk came into this game with an eight-point advantage over the Hoops and a 100pc away record, but they had few complaints about an outcome which eases the pressure on Kenny's successor Trevor Croly.
Sligo's win over Derry earlier in the day emphasised just how high the bar has been raised at the top of the table, and Croly's side remain 13 points off the pace, and 10 off the top three.
Still, the Hoops faithful can take heart from the manner in which their side have responded to the painful defeat at UCD that placed the spotlight on the new man. "We've been playing well," said Croly afterwards. "We just haven't been getting the results. But we were good tonight, we dominated the game."
Kenny didn't really dispute the analysis, acknowledging that his in-form side had fallen below the standards they have set for themselves in a fine campaign to date. "We didn't do ourselves justice," he said.
After a slow start, the Hoops imposed themselves on the first half, pressing higher up the park.
The visitors were vulnerable on the right side of defence, with midfielder John Mountney situated there as part of the reshuffle forced by Mark Rossiter's absence, and John Sullivan moved into central defence.
The first delivery was fired straight at Peter Cherrie, but the visiting netminder had more to do the second time around, getting down smartly to push Sheppard's close-range attempt clear.
The scares jolted the yellow-shirted Louth men back to life, and they twice threatened, with a long-range Keith Ward strike touched wide by Barry Murphy before lone central striker Pat Hoban squandered a glorious opportunity from six yards out.
That looked to be the end of the first-half action but, in the second minute of added time, the locals produced the winner. Andy Boyle swiped at a Sheppard cross, his haphazard clearance rebounding against O'Connor, who reacted promptly to find a way past Cherrie.
Buoyed by their lead, Rovers burst out with purpose and almost added a second shortly after the restart, with a driving run from Danny Ledwith culminating with a powerful shot against the post. Ronan Finn got to the rebound first only to be denied by Cherrie, who was on fine form in his 125th appearance for the Lilywhites.
Dundalk stayed competitive, though, and might have levelled if Kurtis Byrne had controlled a fine pass from Hoban. But with an extra man committed forward, they began to toil in midfield as Rovers began to really take charge.
Croly showcased his strength in depth by bringing Mark Quigley off the bench, a welcome return from injury for the talented winter recruit from Sligo. Yet he announced his arrival with a shocking miss, heading wide when presented with an open goal from a clever O'Connor assist.
The latter was then central in a period of poor finishing, erring twice, and Stephen Rice was also guilty.
Dundalk nearly snatched a point at the death when the quality of Richie Towell's cross was not matched by sub Tiernan Mulvenna's finish.
"As much as we didn't play great, we had chances," sighed Kenny.
For just the third time in the league this season, the final whistle was music to Croly's ears.
Shamrock Rovers – Murphy, Sullivan, Foran, McGuinness, Ledwith; Chambers, Rice; McCabe (Dennehy 56), Finn (Robinson 83), O'Connor; Sheppard (Quigley 71).
Dundalk – Cherrie, Mountney, Sullivan, Boyle, Massey; O'Donnell, Towell, Ward (Dillon 67); Meenan (McDonnell 82), Hoban, Byrne (Mulvenna 75).
Ref – A Buttimer (Cork)