Shelbourne manager Damien Duff considers his side a ‘different animal’ now, compared to earlier in the season.
In his first year in charge, Duff has led the Reds to an FAI Cup semi-final against Wexford next month, their first in a decade, while their Premier Division status is all but safe for this year also.
After Friday’s 0-0 draw against champions Shamrock Rovers, the former 100-cap Ireland international hailed his side's progress to date.
“We have come a long way,” said Duff.
“I said in one of our first meetings, watch which team grows the most. I always believed we would grow a lot, maybe not the most, but a lot. The players we have in the building are good young honest pros who want to learn and improve. It's there for everybody to see, they are a different animal now.”
Duff was pleased by his side’s display against the champions, who dropped two points in the title race as a result of the Tolka Park stalemate. After back-to-back defeats to Rovers, Shels frustrated the leaders, who created no clear chances in Drumcondra. Duff insisted they wouldn't be getting carried away though, and praised Stephen Bradley’s side for setting the standard in recent years.
“It was an amazing shift from the lads,” he added.
“It was a thoroughly deserved point, against the best team in the country. I don’t think anyone can argue with that. The lads positional play without the ball, defensive, willing to put bodies on the line, top class. Rovers are the benchmark for everyone. It's not as if we are in there bouncing up and down celebrating a point against Rovers.”
The Shels boss also lauded winger Shane Farrell, after another eye-catching performance for the Reds. The 22-year-old has been an ever-present in the side this term, starting each of the last 22 league games.
“Shane is gold dust,” Duff smiled.
“It always goes back to the conversation I had with him after six weeks. He wouldn’t be the greatest trainer at times, I had to give him a little rattle. In pre-season he started slowly because I didn’t know the real Shane Farrell. For the last six months I’ve seen it.
“What a player. For me he’s one of the standout players, not in the team, but in the league. I genuinely mean that. He’s top, top class on and off the pitch, I love him.”
Meanwhile, Shamrock Rovers manager Stephen Bradley insists his side won’t be looking over their shoulder in the title race, and is confident their experience will guide them to a third successive league triumph.
The Hoops have won one of their last seven on the road in all competitions, but host UCD on Monday (8.0), where a win would see them go five points clear of second-placed Derry City with 30 games each played.
The Hoops boss agreed a draw was a fair result after a largely dull spectacle at Tolka Park, and maintained his charges hold the advantage because they have been in this position before.
“It doesn't matter how close it is, at the start of the year if you offered me two points ahead with a game in hand, I’d have ripped your hand off,” said Bradley.
“We’re in a fantastic position. This isn’t a team who just sprung up the top and are a bit shook. We’ve been here before, and we’ve been top of the league for most of this season. We understand what it’s about. We know if we do what we do, the end result will come.”
Despite the setback, Bradley is pleased to see some key players like Roberto Lopes and Sean Hoare returning from injury, particularly during the busy fixture schedule, with 11 games over the next six weeks between the league and Europa Conference League.
“Pico and Sean are almost back. Richie (Towell) got back on Thursday as well, so we’re just there as a squad. Everyone is back at the right time. If you want to win you have to understand there will be injuries. We lost Jack (Byrne) and Graham (Burke) for four months. We’re not one of these teams that complain about players getting injured, it’s part of football.
“The players have stepped up, been asked to play different positions, been asked to play every three days, they’ve just got on with it. That’s what you’ve got to do if you want to compete and win things.”
With ninth-placed UCD up next on Monday, Bradley insists they won't be taking them for granted, and pointed to their 3-2 win over Dundalk a fortnight ago as a warning of what the Students are capable of, as they battle for survival in the top flight.
“We look at every game as a great chance for three points to be honest,” Bradley added.
“We don’t look at games and think we’ll target this one or that one. Off the back of a brilliant result against Dundalk, UCD will come to Tallaght and will be fighting for their lives. They will have a right go but we'll be ready for it, try to impose ourselves and win the game.”