Friday 20 April 2018

Tallaght derby date pressures will test direction of Bradley's Shamrock Rovers project at senior level

Shamrock Rovers manager Stephen Bradley. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Shamrock Rovers manager Stephen Bradley. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Daniell McDonnell

These are interesting times in Irish club football. Double winners Cork City have built themselves up from scratch to become a big story locally and nationally. Dundalk, who are now under American ownership, are back on song.

Waterford have burst into the equation, with new investment reviving the area's love for senior football.

And then there's Shamrock Rovers who sit fourth after the first series of matches, a position that lies below the traditional target at a club that has won more trophies than any other.

There is a view that signs of an upturn around the league are tied in with the general economy, yet it is worth remembering that the Hoops were thriving when the recession was biting.

After their move to Tallaght in 2009, they collected league titles in 2010 and 2011 and made the Europa League group stages. Bookmakers were offering prices on the number of leagues Rovers would win in the next decade.

Well-documented mistakes were made. Michael O'Neill was allowed to leave too easily, and Stephen Kenny's stay was short-lived. Trevor Croly and Pat Fenlon came and went before current manager Stephen Bradley was handed the reins late in 2016.

Rovers have fully embraced the League of Ireland’s increased responsibility in the area of
underage football, with Damien Duff a high-profile flag-bearer with his U-15 side and their early-morning training sessions. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Rovers have fully embraced the League of Ireland’s increased responsibility in the area of underage football, with Damien Duff a high-profile flag-bearer with his U-15 side and their early-morning training sessions. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Ahead of the visit of Bohemians to Tallaght this evening, the jury is out on their trajectory. This is an important year for the curve.

Rovers have fully embraced the League of Ireland's increased responsibility in the area of underage football, with Damien Duff a high-profile flag-bearer with his U-15 side and their early-morning training sessions.

They have also addressed other areas that clubs have rightly been accused of ignoring, with the development of a proper training facility in Roadstone part of offering an alternative to kids who wish to go overseas.

'The project' has been the subject of some derision from rival clubs, particularly when the first team suffers a bad day.

Their own players are conscious of it too. Skipper Ronan Finn admitted as much before the season-opener with Bohs, quipping that news of an emphatic win for an underage side would never soften the blow of a derby defeat.

Rovers did lose that game, and have tasted defeat in four out of their ten games so far this season including on their travels against the top three, Dundalk, Cork and Waterford.

Last term they did finish third, but they were a full 22 points behind Cork and their record of 13 losses actually exceeded that of a Galway team that was relegated.

If they are to push for honours this term, they will need to put together a lengthy unbeaten streak at some point.

Another derby loss on their own patch tonight would be disastrous and raise questions about Bradley, although there is no real suggestion he is feeling the heat internally.

In the past, Rovers fans have been harsh on managers, yet they have been quite measured in response to disappointments over the past 12 months.

The team were given a warm ovation from travelling fans following their losses, especially away to Waterford - where they played the bulk of the match with ten men - and last week's reverse in Dundalk which was a story of goalkeeping mistakes by young Rovers netminder Kevin Horgan.

This is a continual problem for Bradley, who retained experienced goalkeeper Tomer Chencinski and then benched him for the opening day with Horgan preferred.

Unfortunately, Horgan was guilty of errors in that game and the Cork reverse before the Dundalk pain which came after Chencinski was recalled and then dropped again.

Rovers are making moves to bring in a safer proposition in the summer, yet the damage might already have been done.

Another pre-season error was allowing ex-Liverpool defender Daniel Cleary to be snapped up by Dundalk; he had been training with Rovers who were planning to sign him and then send him on loan. He was ready to come in and star for Dundalk straight away.

These things happen, of course, but it's soft concessions that are undoing the good work at the other end of the field where the Hoops are attractive to watch on a going day.

With playmaker Graham Burke the key factor, and their own last-ditch signing Seán Kavanagh adding technical quality, they have taken 13 points from 15 in Tallaght and knocked six past Bray and Derry City.

Crowds have held up reasonably well, with the 2017 average of 2,800 an increase from 2,000 in 2016. It will be significantly larger tonight.

Bradley has insisted that talk of a title tilt is premature. He argued that John Caulfield and Stephen Kenny were not being asked about winning leagues in their second seasons in charge, when Caulfield actually challenged in his first year - Kenny won it after finishing second in his maiden campaign.

Granted, Cork and Dundalk have built up a bank of experience and funds from dominating for four successive years, but Rovers have a set-up and an ability to attract Dublin-based players that gives them scope to challenge.

They haven't properly contended for a league since their last win in 2011, or lifted a trophy since 2013. Last year's third place aligned with a run to the FAI Cup semi-finals could be described as progress. A repeat of last year would be harder to sell in the same way.

Tonight's result could shape the mood for the rest of their season.

Irish Independent

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