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In a league of their own

FOUR MINUTES into injury time in the 54th game of a long, punishing season -- that's what you call leaving it late.

But just about every second of this remarkable season has been something to savour for the players and supporters of Shamrock Rovers FC, last night's late, late show against UCD was simply the crowning glory on a season bursting with success.

Champions for the 17th time, back-to-back league titles, the league crown retained with a game to spare and no need for a possible nail-biting final day of drama against Galway United on Friday night.

To put things in context, in late October 2005 Rovers were playing Kilkenny City in a game in the graveyard of First Division football, hoping to win promotion back to the top flight. Whereas October 2011 sees Rovers' win securing the Premier title and they have the luxury of three more European games to savour. The script from last night's game away to UCD came with a happy ending as two players who've been on the fringes for Rovers in recent weeks, Ken Oman and Dean Kelly, emerged as their goal-scorers. Time For Heroes, as Pete Doherty might say.

There was anguish, worry and a lot of hard work along the way last night as Rovers had to dig very deep to overcome a very good UCD side who were a credit to their club, with a gutsy performance that was also a credit to the integrity of the league. But in the end it was to be Rovers' night, Dean Kelly coming off the bench to play for the first time in 10 weeks and score the winner in injury time.

"That's the way our season's been. We have gone right to the death in a lot of games, but it's a testament to the character of the players that they have that in them, that they have the belief and the spirit to keep going in games," said Michael O'Neill after becoming only the second manager in 24 years to win back-to-back titles.

"Last night it would have been easy enough to finish the game at 1-1 and move on to the Galway game on Friday but they didn't want to do that. They wanted to go that extra wee bit and did that, so all credit to them, they have had a fantastic season. Their character is not in question, they have shown that in European games, and at times they've not had the credit they deserved domestically. They have topped the league table for something like 27 weeks so they are worthy champions. They showed that not only last night but over the season."

Rovers had to work hard, dig deep and fight last night, with it being clear to their fans in the 2,552 crowd at the Belfield Bowl from early on that UCD were not going to stand back and watch Rovers canter towards the title.

Rovers looked sluggish in a first half which remained scoreless but there was a possible game-turning moment seconds into the second half when Rovers defender Craig Sives was sent off for a second bookable offence.

Rovers' response was to replace striker Ciaran Kilduff with defender Oman, the big man from Finglas making his first league appearance since July and on 68 minutes Oman headed Rovers in front.

But just 90 seconds later UCD were level from Robbie Benson.


Some stunning work by UCD's keeper Mark McGinley kept the Students level late on but with seconds left, substitute Kelly got on the end of a Stephen O'Donnell effort and nicked the winner.

"For both lads it was great to see them score," said O'Neill.

Priceless moments, and more to come. "It's a young team so there is a lot for them to build on," O'Neill predicted.

Certainly a long, long way from First Division matches against Kilkenny City as this team plans to Keep On Hooping.