Redemption day for heroic Kelly
Sligo triumph thanks to shoot-out masterclass
Shamrock Rovers 0
Sligo Rovers 0
(Sligo Rovers win 2-0 on penalties)
WHEN a major competition is decided by virtue of penalty kicks, there's always a danger of injustice. Not this time.
Sligo deserved this triumph, for it was they who showed more invention on an afternoon where the domestic showpiece attracted 36,101 spectators to the Aviva Stadium, the biggest FAI Cup final turnout since 1968.
In the end, it was Ciaran Kelly who emerged as the unlikely hero. Twelve months ago, the stand-in 'keeper had given away the spot-kick in Tallaght which gave Sporting Fingal the momentum to claim the silverware. In different circumstances, the spotlight would fall on him again here.
Shamrock Rovers manager Michael O'Neill was relieved to reach penalties after Stephen Bradley was sent off in the 110th minute, leaving the Hoops on the defensive as extra-time ticked to a scoreless conclusion.
He instructed his penalty takers to get their strikes on target, and Gary Twigg, Pat Flynn, Chris Turner and Paddy Kavanagh managed that alright. But 30-year-old Kelly saved all of them, meaning that conversions from Eoin Doyle and Gary McCabe were enough to take the trophy back to the Showgrounds for the third time in the Connacht club's history.
Manager Paul Cook was absent for that drama. He couldn't bear to watch it so headed out into a car park with physio John Coyle. "He was having a ciggie and talking about his father's rosary beads," quipped the affable Scouser, who was out on the pitch in no time to bask in the glory.
Afterwards, he was enthusing about what this victory could mean for his club, who already have the EA Sports Cup to show for a campaign where their brand of play has won plaudits.
"We have strangled a bit of momentum from Dublin," he said. "Two trophies are in Sligo and that for us is a terrific achievement.
"Would we be considered the best team in the country today? I'm asking. I'm not saying we are. Shamrock Rovers are the league champions, but Michael (O'Neill) was saying coming into the game that we were favourites.
"The mindset is that we're the in-form team in the country. Now we've got to push on and build a club."
Squads win leagues, though, and the contrast in strength in depth between the two camps was obvious from a cursory glance at the team-sheet. Cook put injured first-choice goalkeeper Richard Brush on the bench to make up the numbers when he was in no state to play.
O'Neill could afford to leave out regular centre-half Aidan Price, and keep the likes of Dessie Baker, Neale Fenn, Paddy Kavanagh and Danny Murphy in reserve. He made three switches during the game, whereas Cook, so hurt by the unavailability of Richie Ryan and Matthew Blinkhorn, waited until the 116th minute before he meddled.
He still had a strong first XI, however, and much of the talk in the preliminaries had centred around whether the Hoops' game plan would revolve around stopping Sligo's playmakers. On the contrary, O'Neill made a positive statement, opting for a 4-4-2 with Thomas Stewart partnering Twigg rather than matching Sligo's hybrid 4-5-1.
With Price surprisingly left out, Stephen Rice reverted to right full and Pat Flynn tucked in alongside Craig Sives. Bradley, a sculptor as opposed to a grafter, was brought in alongside Chris Turner in central midfield.
Alas, while the Dubliners started brightly enough and Twigg tested his range with two snapshots from distance, Sligo gradually began to assert themselves in the engine room with Danny Ventre -- stepping in for Ryan -- digging in and Joseph Ndo and John Russell roamed to good effect. Ndo, in particular, was influential and used the full width of the pitch by spreading the play and stretching the Hoops, who spent periods on the back foot.
They could have fallen behind on the quarter-hour mark when the ex-Cameroon international swung a corner into the danger zone where the unmarked Romauld Boco's header smashed the crossbar with Alan Mannus at full stretch.
Despite the sporadic stints of decent passing, Sligo's clearest openings largely came from set-piece deliveries with the Hoops rearguard, led by Sives, defending stoutly in their own area with a crunching tackle by the Scot on the marauding Iarfhlaith Davoren a perfect example.
That said, both Gavin Peers and Ndo were booked for infringements during Hoops forays into Sligo territory, with the latter incident resulting in a free kick that Billy Dennehy curled over.
Nevertheless, the men from the west really should have gone in at the interval ahead, with Peers nodding another Ndo in-swinger off target when it appeared easier to score.
O'Neill's troops were first out after the resumption, and briefly succeeding in pressing Sligo back in a decent spell for the league winners but they were almost caught on the break when a move started by Kelly sprung to the other area where left winger Gary McCabe shot over.
The Connacht side were having more joy on the right side, with Alan Keane overlapping to good effect in support of Boco and the pair combined for the Benin international to test Mannus before McCabe stung the palms of the Hoops 'keeper.
O'Neill sent for Baker, and the relocated Stewart was denied by a Peers clearance when the substitute was ready to apply the finishing touch. Twigg and Dennehy threatened for the Hoops in the final minutes of normal time, and Flynn blocked a goal-bound McCabe effort with the game destined to go the distance.
Extra-time was packed with fatigue and devoid of excitement until Bradley was given a second yellow for a foul on Keane, with the right-back full of energy as others suffered with cramp.
"I couldn't complain really," sighed the honest Bradley afterwards.
Sligo were in the ascendancy without really penetrating as time ran out, although man of the match Ndo never stopped probing.
The toss decreed that Cook's charges would go first and have the benefit of firing into the end where their vocal supporters were gathered. The manager might have legged it, but he didn't feel the chance was gone. "I do believe things are written," he croaked. "Today, I always felt we'd win the cup. Last year, I never had that feeling."
This morning, finally, Sligo can stop talking about the misery of 2009. The antidote for the hangover will be daydreaming about what lies ahead.
Shamrock Rovers -- Mannus, Rice, Sives, Flynn, Stevens; Chambers (Baker 69; Price 111), Bradley, Turner, Dennehy; Stewart (Kavanagh 102), Twigg
Sligo Rovers -- Kelly, Keane, Peers, Lauchlan, Davoren; Ventre (O'Grady 116), Ndo, Russell; Boco, McCabe; Doyle
Ref -- T Connolly (Dublin).