Sheppard swoops to keep Sligo at bay
Shamrock Rovers 1
Sligo Rovers 0
THE pre-season message from Paul Cook was that, if Sligo were to wrest the crown from Shamrock Rovers, they needed to avoid another slow start. Mission unaccomplished.
Sure, this result leaves the Westerners only seven points behind at a relatively early stage of the journey.
But a run of three league defeats in four games is worrying for those who felt that last year's fast finishers were the main challenge to the champions.
Michael O'Neill's team look in fine fettle, however, and maintained their three- point lead over Derry at the top of the table with a formidable display.
The second 45 minutes may not have been as impressive as the first, but they closed out this victory despite the late dismissal of Ken Oman which gave Sligo hope.
But it took them until injury-time to really test Alan Mannus, and the Hoops 'keeper rose to the occasion by denying Matt Blinkhorn.
Although Sligo tasted FAI Cup glory when these sides met last November, it is the Dubliners who have dominated their league meetings in recent times.
Having already enjoyed a league win and two Setanta Cup triumphs over the Bit O'Red this year, it's no surprise that O'Neill's charges started confidently.
The protagonists adopted similar formations here, with Gary O'Neill and Blinkhorn effectively deployed as lone strikers at either end of the pitch. They were supported by three attacking midfielders, with the Hoops' Ronan Finn and Sligo's Joseph Ndo operating as the playmakers.
Both were prominent, yet it was Finn who was the more incisive before the interval.
Karl Sheppard is the form man for Rovers at the moment, and it was no great surprise that the ex-Galway man provided the opening goal. He has adapted well to a wide right role, and came into this game on the back of hitting the target first in three successive league games.
Conor McCormack took the best supporting actor role. The Dundalk native was on the bench for Monday's draw with his hometown club, but he rose to the occasion ten minutes shy of the interval, embarking on a surging run which concluded with a left wing delivery that was steered past Brendan Clarke by the head of Sheppard.
On the balance of play, it was a deserved lead. Sligo have been in stuttering form of late and while the absence of suspended Gavin Peers was a setback, Cook had many of his key offensive threats present, but they were largely ineffective.
They might have been further behind only for a block from the alert Alan Keane to deny O'Neill. It was better from the Connacht outfit after the resumption without creating any openings of note.
They were certainly shading the possession statistics, and Michael O'Neill's team found themselves pushed back for a period. The Hoops boss left his dugout to instruct his charges to lift it again, with Finn unable to repeat his first half exploits.
Cook, on the other hand, was remonstrating with the match officials, evidently exasperated by some decisions from Anthony Buttimer. He cut a frustrated figure on the sideline throughout.
The real problem for the visitors was their inability to breach a well organised home rearguard, with centre halves Dan Murray and Oman winning the physical battle with Blinkhorn.
Sligo still hadn't registered a shot of note as the clock ticked into the final 15 minutes, with the respective benches utilised and Cook sending for Aaron Greene, Alan Kirby and John Russell.
Ironically enough, it was Buttimer that gave Sligo a glimmer of hope with five minutes to go, producing a second yellow to Oman when he blocked an attempt to take a quick free, although the big man protested that he knew nothing about it.
The natives could actually have doubled their lead almost immediately, with sub Ciaran Kilduff rounding Clarke before shooting into the side netting from a tight angle.
Sligo pressed, and Blinkhorn finally found space in injury-time, but his effort lacked the conviction to pass Mannus and the game was over.
Shamrock Rovers -- Mannus, Sullivan, Murray, Oman, Stevens; Rice, McCormack (Turner 81); Sheppard, Finn, McCabe (Dennehy 63); O'Neill (Kilduff 73)
Sligo Rovers -- Clarke, Keane, Foran, McGuinness, Davoren; Ryan, Ventre (Russell 79); Doyle, Ndo (Kirby 74), Cretaro [Greene 63); Blinkhorn
REF -- A Buttimer (Cork)