Sligo Rovers 3-1 Shelbourne
Sligo Rovers will travel across the water later this week with form and confidence on their side after they beat Shelbourne 3-1 at The Showgrounds on Saturday evening.
That win stretched their unbeaten home run to seven games, making Rovers one of the form teams in the league.
John Russell’s side rode their luck at times, particularly in the second-half, but the victory over their Dublin opposition was all the more sweeter given Damien Duff’s side had already beaten them twice in their two meetings this season.
Shels took the lead after just five minutes, and while it took the hosts 20 or so minutes to settle into the game, they netted twice to ensure they were leading at the half-way point.
The visitors felt aggrieved that a number of decisions went against them in the second-half, including a penalty that Aidan Keena slotted home to make sure of all three points for the Bit O’Red in what was a superb evening at The Showgrounds.
John Russell had yet to lose a game coming into Saturday’s fixture, during his tenure as interim manager and as manager, recording two wins and two draws in the four games that he has been in charge for.
But there was an air of caution ahead of Saturday’s game from both managers. Russell was more than aware of the fact that Shels have proven to be somewhat of a bogey team for his side, while Duff spoke of the impetus and energy that the new Rovers manager would have brought to Rovers.
Russell made just the one change on Saturday night after the draw with Drogheda last week. Lewis Banks was replaced by Nando Pijnaker, while new signing Estonian international Frank Liivak was named among the substitutes.
Luke McNicholas made the bench too after his return from a loan spell with Cliftonville. Garry Buckley remained sidelined through injury.
Duff made two changes from the side that drew 0-0 with Dundalk on their last day out.
Jad Hakiki and Sean Boyd were replaced by JR Wilson and Gavin Molloy, the latter making his first start of the season.
The visitors started the game brightly, and were having some joy down their left hand side through Conor Kane as they pressed the Rovers defence from the start.
Five minutes had elapsed when they went ahead. JJ Lunney played it short to Brian McManus as Rovers were struggling to get it clear.
McManus’ shot at goal took a slight deflection bringing it into the net past Ed McGinty, silencing the home crowd.
Going behind wasn’t ideal for Rovers, and Russell would have been hopeful of a positive response from his side.
It did take 20 minutes or so for the Bit O’Red to settle into the game, with both sides taking time to work it out from the back before trying to start an attack.
Defensively, Shels were sound with Brendan Clarke in goals the quieter of the two in the opening stages.
But, he was beaten on 23 minutes as Rovers launched an attack on the counter, a highly successful attack at that.
Keena won the ball deep in the Rovers defence and picked out Will Fitzgerald. The former Derry man carried it forward before finding Max Mata with a fine pass.
Mata had a lot of work to do, and the New Zealander took a few touches inside the Shels box, and even with an awkward angle fired past Clarke to make it one all.
Minutes later, Rovers went ahead with what will certainly be a contender for goal of the season.
Paddy Kirk’s glorious pass came to Keena who played a lovely one-two with Mata. The duo charged forward, with Keena finding his strike partner inside the box.
Just as Mata looked as though he was about to shoot, he played it short to Rovers’ top scored who lobbed it over Clarke with his 10th goal of the season to put Rovers ahead.
A suckerpunch for Shelbourne, undoubtedly with the Bit O’Red now in the lead going into half-time.
Russell would have spoken to his side at half-time about the importance of seeing this game out, but they were going to have to work for it.
Shels were pressing for an equaliser, while Russell brought on reinforcements, including new signing Liivak.
The Estonian international felt he should have had a penalty, but just as the protests were coming to an end, Shels felt they should have been level.
Jack Moylan’s shot was spilled by McGinty, and while Shels thought it had crossed the line, the officials said it hadn’t, with Colm Horgan providing the all important goal-line clearance.
Shels did get the ball in the net with eight minutes to go, but Hakiki’s shot took the slightest touch off Sean Boyd before going in, the former Harps man adjudged to have been in an offside position.
Moylan had the ball in the net moments later, but again the linesman’s flag was up for offside.
As if things weren’t bad enough for the Dubliners, Rovers went down the other end and won a penalty when referee John McLoughlin was adamant Brendan Clarke fouled Fitzgerald as he tried to beat him inside the box.
Keena made no mistake, beating Clarke from the spot to score his 11th goal of the season, becoming the league’s top goalscorer.
Attention turns to European action now for Rovers, with the Bit O’Red travelling to England on Tuesday ahead of Thursday’s game against Cymru Premier side Bala Town at Park Hall, on the Welsh border with England.
Sligo Rovers: Ed McGinty; Colm Horgan, Shane Blaney, Nando Pijnaker, Paddy Kirk; Niall Morahan (Greg Bolger, 62 [Seamas Keogh, 79]), Adam McDonnell (David Cawley, 76); Karl O’Sullivan (Frank Liivak, 79), Will Fitzgerald; Max Mata; Aidan Keena.
Shelbourne: Brendan Clarke; Aaron O’Driscoll (Kameron Ledwidge, 46), Luke Byrne, Shane Griffin (Dan Carr, 75); John Wilson (Sean Boyd, 62), Conor Kane; Brian McManus (Jad Hakiki, 63), Gavin Molloy, JJ Lunney (Gavin Hodgins, 91); Shane Farrell, Jack Moylan.
Referee: John McLoughlin.