O'Connor's delicious double sees off Derry
Shamrock Rvs 2 Derry City 1
SLOWLY, but surely, Shamrock Rovers are starting to creep onto the fringes of the League of Ireland title race.
This Sean O'Connor-inspired win over Derry City stretched their unbeaten league run to 11 matches and moved Trevor Croly's charges within eight points of league leaders St Patrick's Athletic who have a less than straightforward game in hand against Sligo Rovers tomorrow. The Hoops are in fifth position and therefore will need a lot to go their way if they are to meet their pre-season expectations.
Still, considering their early season impotence, which returned in a lethargic draw with Bray last week, they have performed well to add some interest to the final third of their campaign.
To mark the launch of 'Tallaght Time', a book commemorating their eventful four years in Dublin 24, O'Connor made the difference here with two of the best strikes in this venue's short history.
With both sides operating a hybrid 4-2-3-1 the respective front men were doing most of their better work with their backs to goal with Hoops debutant Eamon Zayed and the Candystripes Michael Rafter initially quite subdued.
Rovers edged on top as the half progressed with a fine Simon Madden clearance denying Billy Dennehy and the latter then firing wide when finding a bit of space in a crowded area. Ronan Finn, who had teed up Dennehy's first opening, subsequently wriggled into a shooting position to test Gerard Doherty.
What the tie desperately needed was a goal to give one of the protagonists a little more urgency to break from their matching bank of four defenders and two holding midfielders.
Seven minutes before the interval, the hosts delivered it, with O'Connor drifting in from the right wing to meet a Barry Molloy defensive header with a terrific first-time volley from distance that sailed past the helpless Doherty.
It's an exocet that is certain to feature in the end of season highlight reels. And, more importantly, it really brought this encounter to life.
The Candystripes resumed with purpose, and began to commit numbers to the attacking effort with the highly regarded Michael Duffy, the latest from the impressive Foyleside production line, temporarily giving Rovers right full Pat Sullivan some problems.
A period of pressure yielded an equaliser with new signing Eoghan Osborne roving forward from left back and manoeuvring his body into a position that forced a foul from Dennehy.
Tellingly, there were few complaints from the culprit as ref Padraig Sutton pointed to the spot, and Rafter calmly stepped up to slot past Hoops stand-in netminder Richard Brush.
Rovers, or O'Connor to be more precise, responded impressively. The ex-St Pat's man added another goal of the month contender by embarking on a mazy run from inside the Candystripes half which culminated with a dart inside and a deadly accurate left footer that again gave Doherty no chance.
Around the hour mark, both benches made changes, and Zayed's replacement Karl Sheppard had an impact, taking part in a fine team move which finished with an O'Connor centre narrowly missing the inrushing Dennehy.
Derry boss Declan Devine, who had earlier introduced David McDaid and Ryan Curran, played his last card with 12 minutes to go and sent Mark Griffin into the fray, effectively switching to a 4-2-4. Croly instructed his players to be vigilant yet they also sensed joy on the break with black shirts committed. The best of those fell to Finn who slammed the ball against the post.
Devine's men were incapable of prising open the Hoops rearguard in a similar manner and the final throes of injury time were spent in the Derry half. They will need to raise the performance levels a notch when they meet Trabzonspor in Turkey next Thursday.
Shamrock Rovers – Brush, Sullivan, Foran, Oman, Powell; Chambers (Robinson 64), Rice; O'Connor (McCabe 84), Finn, Dennehy; Zayed (Sheppard 58)
Derry City – Doherty, Madden, S McEleney, Greacen, Osborne; Higgins (Curran 72), Molloy; Kavanagh (Griffin 78), B McNamee, Duffy; Rafter (McDaid 64)
Ref – P Sutton (Clare)