IN a close contest, every team looks for that 'little something' which will give them the edge over their rivals. In this year's Airtricity Premier Division title race, leaders St Patrick's Athletic found it – and it didn't cost a penny.
It is their disciplinary record which has put them ahead of third-placed Sligo Rovers, who they meet today at Richmond Park, and second-placed Dundalk.
St Pat's have incurred only one red card in the League, compared to Dundalk's five and Sligo's four, and this has been a major contributor to the position they find themselves in, only needing three points from their last three games to clinch their first title in 14 years.
Dundalk have special reason to regret the two red cards picked up by their captain Stephen O'Donnell. Two of the games he subsequently missed were against Limerick and both ended in defeat. His importance to the team was emphasised last Sunday with a man of the match display against Drogheda, when nine-man Dundalk lost 1-0.
Sligo's spell of indiscipline coincided with the end of their eight-game winning run at the start of the season. In the next seven games, they incurred four red cards, two of them to leading scorer Anthony Elding.
Sligo endured a rocky spell at that time, but they have shown signs of better form recently and, after seeing off Shamrock Rovers' challenge in the Cup semi-final, they travel with confidence today. However, one can't help feeling that their indiscipline has ruled them out of contention for the title.
In a league where four yellow cards earns a one-match ban, St Pat's almost ever-present back-four of Ger O'Brien, Conor Kenna, Kenny Browne and Ian Bermingham is another key example of good discipline.
"All I tell the players is that we must retain possession," explained manager Liam Buckley. "In that way, with 70 per cent possession against the opposition's 30 per cent, we won't have to make too many tackles, and it is the mistimed tackles which earn the bookings."
Buckley also made the point that the FAI should reward players for going six matches without a booking. "It's ludicrous that players, especially defenders, at the end of the season are being banned for reaching four yellow cards," he said. "If they go six games without a booking, one card should be scrapped. That would be fairer."
Today sees the return of Killian Brennan after his suspension for the club's lone red card. His switch to a play-maker role, after years as a winger or full-back, has been a revelation. He, along with Dundalk's O'Donnell, must be contenders for Player of the Year, but Brennan is likely to be the one with the League medal. His midfield battle with Sligo's veteran Joseph Ndo today should be worth the admission money alone.