O'Connor red helps Rovers turn the tide
Shamrock Rovers 5
Bray Wanderers 2,
A win over their bogey team and a move back to joint top of the table. For Shamrock Rovers, an ideal way to begin a historic week. Next stop is White Hart Lane on Thursday.
There was good fortune involved, however, with Richie Winter's harsh decision to send off Bray's Shane O'Connor in the first half turning this encounter.
Rovers were trailing at that point, and capitalised on the numerical advantage to run riot. Manager Michael O'Neill admitted to some sympathy for his opponents, although you suspect he won't feel too bad given his recent struggles against Pat Devlin's side.
The Seagulls had taken full points from the previous two meetings in this campaign, and were on course to cause the Hoops more trouble -- until the 36th minute when Winter controversially awarded a second yellow to full-back O'Connor for bringing a Gary McCabe run to a halt.
His first caution, for a foul on Gary Twigg, was certainly unfair.
Devlin voiced his anger to fourth official Tom Connolly and was sent to the stands for his troubles.
"Eighty per cent of sendings off in this league are soft," said O'Neill afterwards. "We have seen that and we have been victims. Maybe we need to get around a table and discuss it."
Winter's decision shifted the momentum. After making seven changes to the team which lost in Sligo on Monday -- with a couple of bodies rested with a view to being fresh for the joust with Spurs -- the hosts started lethargically.
They had created little when Bray seized the advantage, a stunning strike from Jake Kelly, who volleyed in from the edge of the box after a corner was cleared.
With Bray a man down, the Hoops sensed blood. After his pivotal involvement in the sending-off, McCabe became his former club's tormentor-in-chief. He equalised before the interval, collecting a Ronan Finn pass to smash home with conviction.
It made for a smoother team-talk. Rovers were far better after the resumption, working the ball quicker and utilising the extra space. As much as the dismissal of O'Connor was key, O'Neill's men still had serious work to do. The lead goal came from McCabe's elusiveness, with the tricky winger dragged back by Kelly.
Rohan Ricketts, doubtless looking forward to a trip to his former club this week, curled the ball into the box with a pace that eluded a wall of bodies and crept into the bottom corner.
With the wind knocked out of the Bray sails, McCabe completed his brace, orchestrating a quick one-two with Twigg and firing an unstoppable right-footer beyond the helpless Darren Quigley.
From there, it was relaxing Sunday afternoon viewing for the locals. Finn delivered the fourth, with Gary O'Neill playing the attacking midfielder into space. The conversion was calmness personified.
More could have followed. Twigg wasted an opportunity after a fine run that started just inside the Bray half, and Chris Turner struck the post.
Rovers added a fifth at the death when sub Billy Dennehy delivered perfectly for Twigg to smash home a header. That boost to the goal difference was immediately cancelled out by the impressive Kelly, who grabbed his second with a cool finish from a John Mulroy tee-up.
The Hoops are now level with Sligo, but are five goals worse off. Crucially, though, they have a game in hand.
"If we win our next six games, we win the league. As simple as that," smiled O'Neill. It may well be an easier task than what lies in store in London.
Shamrock Rovers -- Brush; McCormack, Sullivan (Dennehy 71), Murray, Paterson; McCabe (Stevens 71), Finn, Turner, Ricketts (Sheppard 77); Twigg, O'Neill.
Bray Wanderers -- Quigley; S O'Connor, Prendergast, Mitchell, Massey; Dempsey; McGuinness (Webster 43), Houston, Shields (D O'Connor 57), Kelly; Murphy (Mulroy 73).
Ref -- R Winter (Dublin)