How the title was won . . .
WHEN MICHAEL O’Neill said this week that when teams who give something away then get the opportunity to take it back, they have to grab that second chance, it seems his players were listening.
True, there were times over the past month or so when hauling themselves over the finishing line seemed beyond them, but by the end of last night’s game at the Carlisle Grounds there was no doubt they deserved to be crowned league champions again after a gap of 16 years.
For the club, the success is further evidence it has re-emerged from the wilderness in which it had been wandering for the past two decades.
For this team, it might be also be the start of something remarkable for they are in a strong position to build on this title, starting with the cup final in two weeks time but then going on well beyond that.
That they are the country’s best team now is beyond debate for just about everybody accepts the best side comes out on top at the end of the league campaign, but they’ll probably be grateful that as time passes, it will be largely forgotten just how close they came to blowing the opportunity they had earned to reassert themselves over their cross city rivals.
Having started the campaign poorly enough with just six points from their first six outings, Rovers’ assault on the title might be said to have kicked off in earnest back in early April when Billy Dennehy’s solitary first-half goal gave the challengers the edge over the defending champions.
After that, they became steadily more formidable, stringing together decent unbeaten runs, looking increasingly solid at the back as a reshaped back four settled down and more menacing up front as Gary Twigg returned from injury and quickly rediscovered his touch in front of goal.
There were a few particular highlights along the way. The win in Sligo in early July when Twigg and Chris Turner scored the goals, the two defeats of then title rivals St Patrick’s Athletic in Richmond Park, where Tommy Stewart played such a big part and what seemed at the time like a potentially crushing 3-0 defeat of Bohemians in August when Dan Murray provided the initial breakthrough.
There had been rumours during the team’s slow start that the decision to hand the former Cork City defender the captaincy for this campaign had been taken badly by more established players at the club but if that really was the case then it only makes the difficulties encountered by the team after the 28 year-old was lost to injury in recent weeks all the more baffling.
Having won six games on the trot prior to heading for Oriel Park in September, Rovers were dismantled there by a determined Dundalk display and defeats against UCD, Bohemians and Sporting Fingal followed so that they went into last night’s game against Bray having lost four of their previous six outings in the league. Critically, they steadied the ship by bouncing back from a late own goal against St Patrick’s Athletic to win their cup semi-final replay and then turned in a solid performance against Drogheda to retake top spot as Bohemians floundered in Galway.
As he reflected on a hectic few weeks on Wednesday, O’Neill admitted to being surprised by the sudden turnaround, observing: “Normally when the misery sets in, it stays.” Not this time.
Last night in Bray, they did just enough in their 2-2 draw to clinch a 16th title. Nobody in their new Tallaght home will care that it was only secured on goal difference.