Topsy-turvy title race tilts Bohs way in day of drama
Long-time leaders Rovers are no longer favourites to win the title, writes Seán Ryan
IT was one o'clock, two o'clock, three o'clock rock in the Airtricity League yesterday. The staggered kick-off times in Inchicore, Dundalk and Tallaght, saw the rhythm of the end-game gathering momentum during the afternoon, building to an amazing crescendo just before five o'clock, as the title race took a surprising turn, with Shamrock Rovers unceremoniously dumped off the top of the leaderboard by two late Sporting Fingal goals.
First blood went to Bohs in Inchicore, when a controversial penalty awarded by referee Richie Winter was initially saved by St Pats' goalkeeper Chris Bennion only for Rafael Cretaro to steam in and crack the rebound to the net with such force that the netting had to be repaired, leading to a delay of five minutes.
The save from Killian Brennan's spot-kick was greeted with a huge roar in Shamrock Rovers' clubhouse, stifled instantly by Cretaro's swift riposte.
Although Bohs were on top for most of the game, their 1-0 lead always left them vulnerable, and in the end they owed their victory to goalkeeper Barry Murphy, who pulled off a string of impressive saves from Dave McAllister, Guy and substitute James O'Brien, all to the chagrin of the Hoops' supporters watching the action on TV in Tallaght.
By the time Rovers took to the pitch they knew they needed a win over Sporting Fingal to regain their two-point lead over Bohs and, in a much livelier atmosphere than had been engendered in Inchicore, the Hoops didn't waste time in giving their fans something to cheer about.
After 15 minutes, Billy Dennehy put Gary Twigg through, he drew 'keeper Brendan Clarke and then released Thomas Stewart to place the ball into an empty net. Fingal appealed for offside, but referee Declan Hanney was unmoved -- and the chanting of the home fans increased in volume.
Meanwhile, in Oriel Park, Sligo Rovers, bidding for a Europa Cup spot next season, moved 2-1 ahead of Dundalk by half-time, with goals from Mathew Blinkhorn and Richie Ryan nullifying Ross Gaynor's reply.
Shamrock Rovers, who lost no caste in losing a thriller to Bohs in Dalymount last Tuesday night, played composed football from the start against Fingal and were unlucky not to add to their score, with James Chambers' piledriver just clearing the crossbar.
Fingal were still in the game, though, and the Hoops got a warning when Colin Hawkins' header from a Conan Byrne corner just cleared the bar with Alan Mannus beaten. Minutes later, Hawkins headed just wide from another Byrne corner, as the home side showed increasing signs of nerves.
Rovers began defending too deeply, with Twigg as their only remaining attacking threat, and the whistles of their fans indicated their displeasure as Fingal came more and more into the game.
If the Hoops were struggling to impose themselves, Sligo had no such problems with Alan Keane and Joseph Ndo adding second half goals to another Gaynor reply for a 4-2 win which puts them three points ahead of St Pat's in third place.
Dundalk's travails were good news for Bohs, who host the Lilywhites on the last day of the season, a time when in the past they have proved renowned party-poopers, denying Cork City, Shelbourne and Bohs titles with last-day heroics.
In Tallaght, Dennehy got through for Rovers on a break but, in electing to pass across goal, he only found a Fingal defender. Then when Dennehy got a run on Ger O'Brien and fired in a shot which Clarke couldn't hold, the usually reliable poacher Twigg wasn't quick enough to react.
The tension increased when Chris Turner, after winning a penalty, blasted his spot-kick off the crossbar, joining a litany of penalty misses at this venue for Rovers, including a crucial one in the FAI Cup against the same opposition.
Minutes later, leading scorer Twigg missed a golden opportunity, and Stewart's follow-up effort was easily saved by Clarke, who had been booked for his part in the earlier penalty incident.
The composed football, which Rovers had employed earlier on, was now a thing of the past and they were reduced to desperate defending and clearances, which regularly found an opponent. It wasn't pretty but Fingal's inability to punish them delayed the inevitable, so that when it came, it was a surprise to the 3,500 attendance.
In the 87th minute, after a comedy of errors in the Hoops' defence, Rice's back header was apparently easy meat for Aidan Price, but he made an almighty cock-up of his pass back to goalkeeper Mannus and Gary O'Neill pounced to put the ball into an empty net.
Worse followed in the 89th minute, when a neat pass to Crowe left the former Bohs' ace well placed to capitalise -- which he did, albeit with the help of a big deflection. While the Fingal players celebrated, disillusioned Hoops' fans began leaving the ground, convinced that their long wait for a League title won't be ended this season.
Across the city in Phibsboro, no doubt they are already dreaming of three-in-a-row.