Rovers' revenge as Saints feel cup pain
ST PATRICK'S ATHLETIC 0 SHAMROCK ROVERS 2
CUP woe is familiar to St Patrick's Athletic fans after a 52-year famine but they left Richmond Park last night fearing that the impact of this defeat could also have serious consequences for their title challenge.
Losing to rivals Shamrock Rovers was bad enough. Injuries to key midfielders Killian Brennan and Shane McFaul and the dismissal of Greg Bolger ahead of next Friday's top-two clash with Dundalk made this a fairly disastrous Friday the 13th for Liam Buckley's charges.
"We'll have to regroup quickly and pick ourselves up," said the Saints boss, who is hopeful that Brennan and McFaul will recover from a dead leg and ankle setback respectively. McFaul left the ground on crutches.
For the victors, this was a sweet triumph considering the humiliation they suffered in a 4-0 defeat at the hands of the Saints last month, a drubbing where their loss of discipline was as painful as the outcome.
Realistically, Trevor Croly's men have to win the competition for the 25th time to ensure European qualification is in their own hands, so this was a significant victory for the rookie boss against his previous employers. "We've been playing well and we carried that through tonight," said Croly, in typically understated fashion.
This eagerly anticipated tie was preceded by a show of unity in honour of Gary O'Neill, a former player of both clubs, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer on Wednesday. Both teams wore white T-shirts wishing the popular striker all the best in the battle that lies ahead.
While the show of support demonstrated the closeness there is between players in this league, the solidarity went out the window once Alan Kelly's whistle blew. Across the duration, the Cork official produced 10 yellow cards and two reds, with Christy Fagan and Conor Powell booked in a lively opening which set the tone.
The Saints were applying more pressure, but the Hoops delivered an end product with their first notable foray when a cross from left-back Powell was glanced into the top corner by the head of Ronan Finn. It was a sucker punch for the Saints and another blow followed when Brennan, reportedly struggling in the warm-up, hobbled off after sustaining further damage in a tackle.
The visitors grew in confidence, with Gary McCabe thriving in his new role behind lone striker Thomas Stewart, a formula that worked in last week's dismissal of Cork City.
McCabe nearly doubled the lead when his turn and shot at the end of a neat passing move was inches from the target with Brendan Clarke beaten. He continued to cause problems, however, and a foul on the trickster led to the second when Billy Dennehy's deep free was headed across the area by Jason McGuinness for Shane Robinson to wriggle into space and acrobatically swing a right-footer past Clarke.
When McFaul signalled that he was in difficulty, the night crossed the border from bad to worse for the hosts and they had no option but to go for broke from the restart.
It drove the visitors on to the back foot and a strong hand from Barry Murphy to deny a Ger O'Brien exocet was required to maintain their two-goal advantage at the hour mark, with Ian Bermingham's follow-up shaving the woodwork. The ex-Saints netminder produced further heroics inside the final half hour with a low save to prevent a Daryl Kavanagh strike.
At the other end, Clarke, primarily a spectator at this point, was called back into action with a fingertip stop from a cheeky McCabe lob.
With the Saints committing numbers, they were increasingly vulnerable to counter-attacks as the minutes passed, but their momentum was completely checked as tempers flared and Bolger collected a second caution for a squabble with McCabe.
The stop-start aggro was perfect for Croly and co at that juncture and, while they lost Pat Sullivan to a second booking, they succeeded in regrouping to book their place in the final four.
They can look towards Saturday's EA Sports Cup decider with confidence and dreams of two further trophies to join the Setanta Cup they picked up in March. By contrast, the Saints have to dust themselves down and focus on healing the wounded if they are to avoid ending up with nothing.
"It wasn't to be tonight," said Buckley. "But our objective this year is to win the league. There'll be pressure on Dundalk as well."
St Patrick's Athletic – Clarke, O'Brien, Kenna, Browne, Bermingham; Bolger, McFaul (Forrester 39), Brennan (Russell 24); Byrne, Fagan (Fagan 82), Kavanagh
Shamrock Rovers – Murphy, Sullivan, Oman, McGuinness, Powell; Finn (Sheppard 66), Ryan, Robinson, Dennehy (O'Connor 90); McCabe (McCormack 86); Stewart
Ref – A Kelly (Cork)