Sunday 17 December 2017

Ricketts chips in to put Hoops on brink


THERE'S no rest for the wicked.

This morning Michael O'Neill boarded a flight to Thessalonica to watch European opponents PAOK against OFI Crete on Sunday, content in the knowledge his second league title with Shamrock Rovers is in his own hands.

Three points from their remaining two games against UCD and Galway United will be enough to retain the trophy. They rode their luck at times at Tallaght last night, but availed of a rare gift from Derry City centre-half Stewart Greacen to take the spoils.

They go to Greece next week with a weight off their minds and a cushion in the league. Then it's on to the 3,000-capacity Belfield Bowl on Monday week, potentially to collect the trophy.

The Candystripes knew that a win would leave them three victories away from the title, and they set about their task with vigour. How they weren't in front at half-time, only they know.

Instead, they let the Hoops in and after that the hosts never looked like relinquishing control. Give Rovers an inch and they'll run with it.

The champions closed the victory out well and considering it was their 52nd competitive match of the season, their stamina was a testament to the squad O'Neill has assembled.

"It's a huge win," he said. "We knew the significance of the three points. We've a four-point cushion on Sligo and five on Derry. We have to make sure to finish the job. We're in a great position."

With so much at stake, it was no surprise the opening salvos were manic. It was Rovers who appeared to have the upper hand and Ricketts' corner was touched on to the bar by Ger Doherty, before the former Spurs man played Karl Sheppard in behind and his low cross was scrambled away by a combination of Ryan McBride and Shane McEleney.

Despite a better opening, the champions were starting to lose their grip on this game as the visitors grew in confidence.

Eamon Zayed's presence was occupying centre-halves Dan Murray and Craig Sives, while the pace of Stephen McLaughlin, Patrick McEleney, Gareth McGlynn and the excellent overlapping full-back Danny Lafferty regularly pulled the Hoops' out of position.

A superb Jim Paterson tackle denied McGlynn, who raced on to Patrick McEleney's pin-point ball, rode Murray's lunge -- when he could have gone down with legitimate penalty ambitions -- only for the Scottish left-back to come from nowhere as he wound up to shoot.

Murray headed Lafferty's free-kick over under his own bar, before the full-back curled a free kick just wide and Zayed headed straight at Richard Brush from McGlynn's high ball.

Ronan Finn fired wide on a foray forward for the hosts, but the traffic continued towards the Square End. McLaughlin cut in from the left and his shot spun off Craig Sives and flew over the bar with Brush rooted to the spot.

The home goal was living a charmed life, and although Derry lost McGlynn to a calf injury, it was to get even luckier when McLaughlin's corner was flicked on by Greacen to Lafferty, who missed the target from inside the six-yard box.

He then sent in a vicious dipping cross for Zayed, but although the league's leading scorer connected firmly with his header, the ball came off the inside of the post and Brush reacted quicker to the rebound.

"I couldn't believe it when it stayed out," Stephen Kenny said after the game.

It was a serious chance and it seemed to stun the Hoops into action. They finished the half with a late burst and claimed a penalty when the ball appeared to come off Barry Molloy's hand from Finn's cross, but referee Alan Kelly waved away the shouts as they went in at the break level.

Things weren't looking any more positive for Rovers after the break, but just as the home crowd were starting to react to misplaced passes and with the players growing more frustrated, they were gifted a goal by poor Derry defending.

Brush hoofed a long ball forward; it looked aimless until Greacen chose to leave it and Ricketts read the situation brilliantly, stealing in and judging his lob over Doherty perfectly.

The Candystripes were rattled and only for Doherty the points could have been secured within minutes: a whipped Ricketts free was turned into the danger zone by Twigg, but Sives fired straight at Doherty, who reacted well to gather at the second attempt.

After that, Derry seemed to have used up their armoury before the break and, instead, it was the Tallaght side who threatened on the break, with Twigg heading over and Finn failing to beat Doherty with a weakly hit shot.

Lafferty almost earned a point with a last-gasp header, but it wasn't to be. Derry left with regrets and a lesson in how to close the deal, Rovers with one hand on the title and a route back to their European highs.

"Europe has added to the pressure," O'Neill admitted. "What people recognise is that the league champions have an easier pathway to the Europa League.

"The players have reached new levels, when they come back to league action they're focused. We lost against Sligo, we were hard done by, but we haven't lost since. It comes from the players' desire to win the league. We spoke after the Bohemians game -- they re-focused, were disappointed to drop points but their focus after that was excellent."

SHAMROCK ROVERS -- Brush; Sullivan, Murray, Sives, Paterson; Ricketts (McCabe 74), Rice, Turner, Finn; Sheppard (Dennehy 84), Twigg.

DERRY CITY -- Doherty; S McEleney, McBride (Higgins 76), Greacen, Lafferty; McGlynn (Farren 35) (Harkin 76), Molloy, Deery, McLaughlin; P McEleney, Zayed.

REF -- A Kelly (Cork).

Irish Independent

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