Pre-season predictions suggested that it would be the sheer strength in depth of their squad which would allow Shamrock Rovers to retain their title.
nd the value of a strong bench, to provide an alternative in a time of need, was evident in their battle with Sligo Rovers, when the champions were able to turn around an utterly dismal first half display, throw on four substitutes at the break, and then win what looked like a lost cause with two goals in the space of two minutes from one of those subs, Graham Burke – who also had time to score a third.
That 45 minutes was one of the worst displays of football from the Hoops since Stephen Bradley took charge, and a change was needed. Bradley was ruthless, hauling off Gary O’Neill, Neil Farrugia, Aaron Greene and Aidomo Emakhu at half time. Having failed to land one shot on target in that first half, Burke scored three in the space of 14 minutes.
At least one of the seven changes to his side was forced on Bradley through injury, but it can be assumed that some of his selection choices were voluntary with Friday’s top of the table clash with Derry City in mind.
Squad rotation almost backfired though, as the squad players given a runout in the green and white Hoops did nothing to merit their inclusion in a very flat first half.
The failure of Sligo keeper Ed McGinty to win his fitness battle meant a rare start for veteran Richard Brush, but even that opening was not taken advantage of by the champions until the subs turned things around.
They failed to come up with a single attempt on Brush’s goal in the first 45 minutes, not much possession and no end product when they did have the ball.
It was Sligo who looked far more likely to score – that was unexpected as Liam Buckley’s men were so far off the pace in their last trip to Dublin, in last Friday’s 2-1 loss to Shelbourne.
They posed a threat as early as the ninth minute – McCourt with good work down the left and a good cross into the box which just didn’t fall for Max Mata.
On 18 minutes Mata was in possession and in a good position. The Hoops needing a strong tackle from Sean Hoare to smother that attack.
Sligo have taken points off the Hoops twice already this season, but they were dead in the water within ten minutes of the restart as the changes worked their magic. A slip by Sligo’s Colm Horgan on 54 minutes gifted possession to the home side. Sub Andy Lyons fed Jack Byrne, and Burke made no mistake with the finish. Two minutes later, Ireland cap Byrne’s clearance, from a poorly-executed Sligo attack, found its way to another sub, Rory Gaffney, and his pass found the unmarked Burke with oceans of space to pick his spot and fire past Brush.
Burke wasn’t finished with a third goal from him on 68 minutes. Another of the Hoops’ subs – Andy Lyons – floated a pass to Burke who struck, unmarked again, as Brush was left unprotected.
Sligo did have a response, Aidan Keena – another player called from the bench on a night when substitutes did all the talking – pouncing at the end of a counter-attack to score his first goal since March. Clinical finishing like that in the first half, when they had the initiative, could have given the away side another outcome but in the end, despite a late Sligo flurry when they hit the post in injury time, home supporters in the crowd of 3,066 will see this as a very good night’s work, the Hoops now one point ahead of Derry who meet in Tallaght on Friday night.
Shamrock Rovers – Mannus; Hoare, Lopes, Kavanagh; Cotter; O’Neill (Burke 46), Watts, Farrugia (McCann 46); Byrne (Towell 75); Emakhu (Lyons 46), Greene (Gaffney 46).
Sligo Rovers – McGinty; Banks, Buckley, Pijnaker, McCourt; Bolger; Horgan (O’Sullivan 80); McDonnell (Morohan 86), Keogh (Fitzgerald 61); Hamilton (Keena 61), Mata (Heaney 61).
REF – D Tomney.