Kelly secures 17th title for Rovers
SOCCER: UCD 1 Shamrock Rovers 2THEY LEFT it terribly late at the UCD Bowl last night where the balance of an enthralling game seemed to shift one way then the other, over and over again.
In the end, and what an end it was, goals from Ken Oman and, in the 94th minute, Dean Kelly, ultimately secured a 17th league title for Shamrock Rovers, whose much travelled fans had only to make a short journey this time to see the prize they really wanted secured once more.
It was dramatic stuff and a little hard on the home side, who played with great spirit and huge determination.
Ultimately, though, the hunger of Michael O’Neill’s side was enough to see them through with Kelly’s tap-in at the end coming after a long, and increasingly desperate, search for the goal required to wrap things up before Friday’s final round of fixtures.
The would-be champions fielded a completely overhauled side from the one that had been beaten in Greece last week with only four survivors – three of them at the back – from the line up that started against PAOK.
One of those who was returning to the side almost made an immediate impact with Gary McCabe stepping inside young UCD full back Hugh Douglas inside the opening minute, but Mark McGinley in the UCD net did well, turning the shot towards the post from where it flew safely behind.
UCD then settled well in their bid to restore some of the pride lost in three previous league meetings between the sides this season that had collectively gone the way of the visitors by 15 goals to two.
After five straight home wins, the Students certainly looked entirely confident this time about their ability to live with the league leaders.
From midfield, the consistently impressive Paul O’Conor provided early evidence of the home side’s intention to pose a scoring threat of their own with a powerful long range effort that wasn’t far off the mark.
Either side of him Dean Marshall and Paul Corry worked tirelessly to contain the Rovers midfield and look for opportunities to release Robert Benson and Darren Meenan, who provided support to lone striker Graham Rusk from wide positions.
The defending champions, in contrast, had reverted to two strikers, with former UCD player Ciarán Kilduff getting a rare opportunity to partner Karl Sheppard in the absence of the suspended Gary Twigg.
Neither actually made all that much of an impact, although Sheppard did have a goal disallowed just before the break for what looked to be an unintentional handball after a Rohan Ricketts cross had been headed towards him and he benefited from the touch before firing home.
Kilduff’s night ended shortly after the second half started when Craig Sives picked up a second yellow card for an entirely unnecessary late challenge on Benson. The striker was replaced by Ken Oman as O’Neill sought to rebalance his side and hope that his midfield could provide sufficient support to Sheppard, who took up a lone role up front.
It didn’t seem at all implausible, for McCabe and Conor McCormack had stretched Douglas more than once over the course of the first period.
In the end, sure enough, they got their breakthrough from a corner won by Sheppard. McCabe floated the ball in, Oman rose highest at the near post to send a glancing header to the far top corner and the party started.
A couple of minutes later, though, it was on hold again when UCD put a fairly swift halt to the celebrations as Benson flicked home Meenan’s low corner through a packed six-yard box.
Having had such a strong whiff of the title, Rovers seemed less content to let it go and in the last 20 minutes they piled forward in search of a winner.
There followed a succession of close shaves for the UCD defence as well as one fairly determined penalty appeal after McCabe was fouled just outside the box.
Most of the 2,500 sell-out crowd reckoned that Rovers had their winner 14 minutes from time when McCabe’s free was headed back across the face of the area for Sheppard to turn towards the target, but McGinley had somehow kept the ball out.
They upped their efforts again after referee Neil Doyle sent off Meenan for a second yellow with 10 minutes left, with Kelly also taking over from Ricketts.
And the 20-year-old was to enjoy the highlight of his young career in the fourth and final minute of injury time when McCabe set up Stephen O’Donnell for a shot that was deflected into his path. And even though Kelly probably has some good years ahead of him, he’s unlikely ever to get an easier opportunity to win a title for his team.
UCD: McGinley; Douglas (Clarke, 85 mins), O’Connor, Leahy, Nangle; Marshall (Russell, 64 mins), O’Conor, Corry; Benson (Boyle, 85 mins), Meenan; Rusk.
SHAMROCK ROVERS:Brush; Sullivan, Sives, Murray, Stevens; Ricketts (Kelly, 80 mins), Finn (O’Donnell, 64 mins), McCormack, McCabe; Sheppard, Kilduff (Oman, 49 mins).
Referee: N Doyle (Dublin).