Eamonn Sweeney: 'Unlikely lads lead the way on day of days for Shamrock Rovers'
Irresistible triumvirate of Byrne, Mannus and Bradley have combined to end 32 years of hurt
Shamrock Rovers' FAI Cup final triumph owes an awful lot to a triumvirate of unlikely lads.
There's Jack Byrne, who came back to the League of Ireland with his career apparently on a downward trajectory.
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Alan Mannus, who returned to Tallaght at an age when most players would have thought about hanging up their boots.
And Stephen Bradley, who little over a year ago seemed one more bad result away from unemployment.
Rovers, as a club, probably counted as unlikely lads too. Their past three decades in the competition they once owned have been nightmarish.
Every season when the draw was made some commentator would mention, "cup specialists Shamrock Rovers". In reality Rovers were cup specialists in the same way that Great Britain is an imperial power, their pre-eminence a mere historical artefact.
Now all has changed utterly thanks to a superb team performance - which should have been rewarded long before the penalty shoot-out - as well as Aaron McEneff's coolness from the spot in normal time and Gary O Neill's with the last kick of the day. But thanks mainly to Byrne, Mannus and Bradley.
Byrne stood head and shoulders above everyone else on the pitch and showed why Mick McCarthy should take a chance on him against Denmark. Yes, the opposition will be stiffer but a player with Byrne's eye for the defence-splitting ball is worth the risk in a match where victory is imperative.
Yesterday he gave one of the great final performances, dropping deep to collect possession, driving at the Dundalk defence and delivering pass after pass of the utmost quality.
His display was like an elongated highlight reel, beginning with a superb through ball in the 12th minute which set Aaron Greene free, only for the forward to pull his shot marginally wide of the far post. The midfielder's pinpoint passing put Dundalk on the back foot and the subtlety and variety of his deliveries kept them off-balance.
Michael Duffy's stunning last-kick-of-the-game equaliser seemed likely to shift the momentum in Dundalk's direction. Yet Byrne continued to dominate in extra-time, a superb turn in the third minute leading to a powerful run only halted by a crude Pat Hoban foul, an exquisite pass eight minutes later putting Greene through before Sean Gannon rescued the Lilywhites with a last-ditch tackle.
A minute later he beat three defenders on his way into the box and slipped the ball to Greg Bolger, who was just about closed down. When a perfect Byrne corner was met by a Neil Farrugia header which flew just over with time running out, it looked like the game's last chance to avoid a spot-kick denouement. But it wasn't.
That's because, with a minute left, Dundalk almost produced a finish even crueller than the one which dashed the hopes of Rovers fans at the end of the ninety minutes. As sub Georgie Kelly turned and shot inside the six-yard box, you could practically see the engraver beginning the letter 'D'.
Enter the hand of Mannus, the veteran keeper reacting superbly to get the touch which carried the ball across the goal line and wide of the far post. And the Linfield old boy wasn't finished yet.
Nine years ago he had to watch as Sligo Rovers goalkeeper Ciaran Kelly attained folk-hero status with a string of shootout saves. Mannus made one penalty save that day and it wasn't enough. This time he made one and it was enough, his superb stop from Daniel Cleary combining with Michael Duffy's strike off the crossbar and a succession of precise Rovers finishes to bring an end to two and-a-half hours of tension and 32 years of hurt.
Stephen Bradley probably knows something about hurt. Few Irish managers have been reviled and mocked to the extent that the Rovers manager was when things went pear-shaped early last season. Rumours of his impending demise didn't seem exaggerated.
This was not a patient club. They'd given Stephen Kenny the bum's rush after less than a season and Bradley was their fifth boss in five years. How could a first-time manager hope to succeed where the two great League of Ireland managers of modern times, Kenny and Pat Fenlon, had failed?
Against all predictions Bradley survived. This season he has sent out the best Rovers team since Michael O'Neill was in charge. He has shown a commitment to the same kind of fluent, creative football he practiced as a player and learned as a young man with Arsenal. Under him Rovers always heed the better angels of their nature.
Eventually overhauled in the title race, they have now won significant honours for the first time since the O'Neill era. The board's decision to eschew the previous trigger-happy approach and show faith in a bright young manager has paid off and means this victory is their triumph too. They did the right thing.
Shamrock Rovers were not yesterday's only victors. The 33,111 attendance was the second highest in the last fifty years and shows what's possible when a pairing really captures the popular imagination.
This final was worthy of the spectators. The contrast with Dundalk's dour jousts with Cork City could not have been greater, largely thanks to Rovers' determination to accentuate the positive. Stephen Bradley could be the new Stephen Kenny.
Maybe the League of Ireland is the unlikeliest lad of all, derided, under-funded, largely unappreciated, prey to hare-brained schemes for its renewal which don't pass the most cursory scrutiny.
But yesterday showed that the League remains an integral part of the national sporting tapestry. There's life in the old dog yet. Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?