Shamrock Rovers 3 Hibernians 0
Shamrock Rovers went from supreme control of this Champions League qualifier to looking nervous, and wide open on counterattacks, to riding their luck as Rory Gaffney avoided what seemed a certain red card before he started and finished a delicious third goal, which should secure safe passage to the next round of Europe’s elite competition for the first time in 10 years.
In short, the 7,019 crowd got their money’s worth.
Rovers have sat and passed this exam on multiple occasions; the hard-working Maltese champions came to Tallaght stadium with two defensive blocks, fully intent on frustrating the hosts while hoping lone striker Jurgen Degabriele could thieve a goal.
First off, Pico Lopes was laser focused all night, so Degabriele gave up that ghost long before time. Lopes treated the Maltese international like a yo-yo until big Terence Groothusen’s second-half cameo threatened a smash and grab result.
Rovers are built for such a proposition, with the loss of Danny Mandroiu to Lincoln City and Jack Byrne’s calf issue unable to disrupt the fluidity of their attack. They can thank Dylan Watts for providing a creative edge, as the attacking midfielder threatened from inside left, which allowed Andy Lyons continue his impressive conversion at left wing back.
Lyons was effectively a high-pressing winger, doing damage in the build-up to Ronan Finn’s goal after 24 minutes of constant probing. It was textbook Rovers as one wing back created space for Gaffney’s daisy cutter to find Finn, the other wing back, at the back post.
Hibernians tightened up to avoid a rout, but Rovers were keen to kill this two-legged affair before an arduous trip, via Shannon, to the Mediterranean tax haven next Tuesday.
Gaffney kept up his end of the bargain. The rangy centre forward kept showing and receiving balls in the inside right channel, which prompted Aaron Greene and Watts to make late runs into the box.
A second, third and even fourth goal seemed inevitable against such a disorganised visiting side, so obviously mired in preseason and lacking the ability to keep possession beyond three passes.
Sure enough, when Finn picked out Gaffney’s latest run and pull back, Watts bagged a second goal five minutes before half-time.
And that seemed to be that. Hibs manager Stefano Sanderra is serving a sideline ban, for an incident at the end of last season, but the Italian made an interesting alteration at the break by introducing Groothusen.
The Aruba striker, fresh from scoring a brace against Saint-Martin in the Concacaf Nations League, plonked his massive frame on top of Lopes, but an easy assumption that this Amsterdam-born giant was playing the wrong sport was silenced by a neat one-two with Degabriele before spinning off Lopes and hammering a shot off Alan Mannus’s crossbar.
Rovers quickly figured the solution to the Aruba problem was to protect possession at all costs. But the game’s natural flow had been interrupted as Degabriele dropped deep to launch a Hail Mary for Thaylor to outmuscle Lee Grace and strike a low shot off the butt of Mannus’s post.
Leading 2-0 at home felt like a perilous position for the remaining 25 minutes.
Rovers’ entire European campaign appeared to hang in the balance when Gaffney was wrestled to the ground by Gabriel Izquier Artiles in the 69th minute. Clearly a cynical foul, the Tuam native appeared to kick the Spaniard in the face.
“I definitely caught him, I didn’t mean to,” said Gaffney. “I thought he was on me and I was trying to get him off me but he obviously dragged me to the floor. I’ve got sent off once in my life and never meant to kick him in the face. I suppose I have kicked him but I didn’t go out to kick him in the face, not at 2-0 up anyways. If I was 2-0 down maybe.”
Danish referee Morten Krogh, having witnessed the incident at close range, flashed two yellow cards. Such conservative officiating will enrage Hibs, especially as Gaffney sauntered off the left wing and profited off Aidomo Emakhu’s brilliant back heel to slide home a valuable third goal.
SHAMROCK ROVERS: Mannus; Hoare, Lopes, Grace; Finn (Gannon, 81 mins), Watts (Towell, 81 mins), O’Neill, McCann, Lyons; Greene (Emakhu, 67 mins), Gaffney (Ferizaj, 85 mins).
HIBERNIANS: Koné; Grech (Caruana, 81 mins), Llerna Bravo, Rodolfo Soares, Izqier Artiles, Zerafa (Soares Fonseca, 90 mins); Thaylor (Attard, 81 mins), Vella, Dialite, Mensah (Groothusen, h-t); Degabriele.
Referee: Morten Krogh (Denmark).