Twigg writes new chapter in Rovers' history
Bray 2 Shamrock Rvs 2
RECENT history had warned us that Shamrock Rovers rarely do things the easy way. Fittingly, there was nothing straightforward about a tension-packed evening that ebbed and flowed until the very last seconds.
The bottom line, however, is that the Hoops are champions for the first time since 1994 after stumbling through the finishing tape like a back marker in the Dublin Marathon.
For the Rovers masses who descended on Bray, the feverish celebration was preceded by an anxious 90 minutes, particularly before the break when it looked as though the crown was slipping away again.
In truth, the Tallaght side could have been two behind heading for the dressing-room, with the linesman ruling out a second cool finish from Bray winger Jake Kelly.
The difference was Gary Twigg, the ice-cool Scotsman who cemented his place in Rovers folklore with a calm conversion to level things up, and then the assist for Thomas Stewart within seconds of the restart.
Spirited Bray responded to level up and, with Bohs beating Dundalk, Rovers entered the dying seconds ahead on goal difference. Suddenly, Jason Molloy's 90th-minute winner for Galway last week was very important for Michael O'Neill's side. Typical of a roller-coaster title race where nothing should have been taken for granted.
Inevitably, a pitch invasion followed on a night where Bray belonged to the Hoops.
The seaside town was gradually annexed as the day progressed and, as kick-off approached, regular visitors to the Carlisle Grounds were met with an unusual sight -- the venue packed to its absolute capacity.
The attendance was supposed to be restricted to 3,000, but it looked like more as fans poured in during the early minutes, with security trying their best to allow punters in and speed up nasty queues. The Bray officials weren't exaggerating this week when they said they could have sold out the venue a couple more times over.
Meanwhile, the Seagulls faithful were drastically outnumbered; their cup final is Tuesday's relegation play-off with Galway United at Terryland Park. Yet, contrary to speculation, Pat Devlin deployed the strongest team available.
Indeed, there was a clear statement of intent from the hosts straight from the tip-off as they burrowed into Rovers territory and forced a free kick at the edge of the box, which skipper Gary Dempsey curled wide of the target. The Wicklow men could savour the occasion without feeling the pressure.
O'Neill had gone to war, as promised, with a positive XI. The Northern Irishman had stressed that he wanted to occupy the Bray half from the outset but instead they were pegged back, with Graham Kelly unleashing another speculative effort from distance, which didn't trouble Alan Mannus.
Rovers did press for a period and were presented with set-piece opportunities, but the delivery was poor. Their young opponents were slicker and a clever break resulted in a corner that stand-in centre-half Adam Mitchell rose to head over the bar. With news filtering through that Bohemians were already well in control at Dalymount Park, it was a nervy time for those of a Hooped persuasion.
And, in the 20th minute, disaster struck. Chris Shields hooked the ball into the final third and when Craig Sives tripped over Bray attacker Shane O'Neill, referee Alan Kelly waved play on and the pacey in-form Jake Kelly nipped through to stylishly lob Mannus for his 13th goal of the season.
Rovers were enduring a terrible spell, with passes misplaced and decisions misjudged. O'Neill has packed the midfield in big games this year but, with two up front here and two attacking wingers in Thomas Stewart and Billy Dennehy, they were struggling in the engine room, with Chris Turner particularly poor in the first half.
Indeed, Bray should have had another when a quick free found Kelly, who escaped Aidan Price and stuck the ball in the bottom corner but was denied by a dubious offside flag. That was a break for Rovers and there was more fortune to come as they restored parity.
Sives advanced from his centre-half berth to loft the ball in the direction of Twigg, but it wouldn't have reached the Scotsman only for a slip from Shane O'Connor. From there, however, the Rovers star demonstrated a composure that had been absent from everyone in a purple shirt in the previous 40 minutes. He calmly rounded goalkeeper Matt Gregg, before dinking the ball into the far corner with the aid of a slight deflection from back-tracking Seagull defender Mitchell. Cue pandemonium.
The interval provided the chance to regroup. Within 15 seconds of the resumption, the title race appeared to be over. Dempsey -- perhaps conscious that he was already booked -- pulled out of a challenge with Enda Stevens, who fed Dessie Baker. The retiring front man tried to release Twigg, whose first touch let him down, yet the second was a calm tee-up for Stewart, who confidently swept the ball beyond Gregg.
Finally, the visiting punters could relax even though Twigg was forced off with a hamstring problem which had been troubling him throughout the game. They had further reason to cheer when word of Dundalk's equaliser at Dalymount came through.
Devlin was turning his attentions to Tuesday by withdrawing Dempsey -- who was inches away with a free kick after Stewart's strike -- and Kelly, arguably his two best players. O'Neill replaced Twigg and Baker with James Chambers and Neale Fenn.
It wasn't game over, though, with Bray delivering the game's fourth goal with 20 minutes remaining. Rovers sloppily stood off Daire Doyle, who was afforded the time and space to chip the ball into the danger zone where sub Gary Shaw bravely nodded past Mannus.
The state of play in Phibsborough at that point provided an element of security, although the Rovers players can't have been too aware of that in a final quarter packed with heavy touches and tired limbs.
Price limped off, with Danny Murphy entering at right-back and Pat Flynn moving into the an unfamiliar central defensive role for the final six minutes.
Bohs' late winners across town removed the security from that result and dramatically put Rovers back into a position where they were one mistake away from disaster. But they saw out the three extra minutes. Now, with the FAI Cup final in just over two weeks' time, they can dream about a double.
Bray -- Gregg; Webster, Mitchell, O'Connor, Massey; Doyle, G Kelly, Dempsey (Baker 60), J Kelly (Shaw 53); Shields (Tresson 81), O'Neill.
Shamrock Rovers -- Mannus; Flynn, Sives, Price (Murphy 84), Stevens; Dennehy, Rice, Turner, Stewart; Baker (Fenn 67), Twigg (Chambers 59).
Ref -- A Kelly (Cork).