Shamrock Rovers 1 Dundalk 1
(Dundalk win 4-3 on pens)
The result will quickly fade from memory but a President’s Cup meeting between these sides was always going to be competitive and had no chance of being friendly.
With shots fired over the off-season after Dundalk dismissiveness of Rovers’ 18-game league win and Seán Hoare and Seán Gannon relocating to Tallaght there was always going to be an edge regardless of who was on the pitch or on the sideline.
Unsurprisingly there were incidents that got Dundalk ‘coach’ Filippo Giovagnoli up off his feet in his position on the bench, while ‘team manager’ Shane Keegan paraded the touchline ahead of him.
Seven yellow cards and a red card were dispensed by ref Damien McGraith who was kept active in driving wind and rain, especially when an exuberant second-half tackle by Sonni Nattestad on Graham Burke earned him a debut dismissal and prompted an old-school schemozzle involving all outfield players that definitely breached social distancing.
But Rovers weren’t able to make the numerical advantage pay off, thus providing us with the spot kicks we were denied when Dundalk claimed an extra-time triumph in December’s FAI Cup final.
Their new Albanian stopper Alessio Abibi was embraced by the Italians after his sudden death spot kick save from Roberto Lopes delighted the Italian coaching staff with Rovers smarting after Burke skied the chance to win in the regulation kicks. Abibi’s celebrations weren’t subdued but his more seasoned colleagues know the April 2 return here will mean far more.
Stephen Bradley said beforehand that this would be a useful opportunity to learn about Dundalk’s new players and the reason they were behind at the interval will have provided a useful education.
Dundalk’s addition of 6ft 6inch centre-half Nattestad was always likely to improve their set-piece output and the Faroese international wriggled away from Hoare in the penalty area to score.
You couldn’t say the goal was against the run of play as Dundalk’s Latvian recruit Raivis Jurkovskis had squandered a glorious chance moments earlier but a visiting lead looked unlikely in the early minutes with Rovers more fluid in general play. Both sides were operating with a version of 3-4-3 with the hosts comfortable in that and Dundalk tweaking the 3-5-2 that they frequently used under Giovagnoli last term.
Absentees on both sides led to a degree of experimentation with regular left centre-half Liam Scales deployed as a left wing-back for Rovers, while Danny Mandroiu, Graham Burke and Rory Gaffney rotated in the front three as a possible sign of things to come.
Scales smashed a first-half header off the crossbar, but the UCD graduate made up for it after the restart with an outrageous strike that wouldn’t quite fit in with the perception of his main strengths as he controlled a Gannon cross running away from goal and flicked it back to set up a superb left-footed volley with Jurkovskis and Abibi flummoxed.
Abibi touched a Gannon cross off the post before Nattestad’s abrupt exit and Dundalk, who have played fewer games than their rivals, inevitably found themselves under the cosh and made adjustments to see it out. They accomplished that mission and took a trophy home for their efforts.
Shamrock Rovers – Mannus, Hoare, Lopes, O’Brien; Gannon, McCann, Finn (Watts 77), Scales; Gaffney, Burke, Mandroiu (Greene 65)
Dundalk – Abibi, Cleary, Boyle, Nattestad; Jurkovskis, Stanton, Shields, Leahy; Junior (Dummigan 82), McMillan (Hoban 50), McEleney (Sloggett 65)
Ref – Damien McGraith