St Patrick’s Athletic 0 Shamrock Rovers 1
Kenny Cunningham regretted his man of the match call as soon as it left his lips but he need not have worried. Cunningham picked the correct team as Shamrock Rovers showed the mark of champions with a 92nd-minute winner to go nine points clear of St Patrick's Athletic with a game in hand.
That could be that for the title race after a superb in-swinging free kick by Dylan Watts was headed goalward by Gary O’Neill. Vitezslav Jaros, on loan from Liverpool, might have made another special save if St Pat’s sub Nahum Melvin-Lambert’s outstretched leg did not deny the hosts what would have been a well earned point.
Rovers really have that Manchester United knack of scoring when it matters most.
Until the injury-time madness, this contest had all the hallmarks of a tense Dublin derby where the teams cancelled each other out.
“No one standout player to be honest,” said Cunningham on RTÉ commentary in the 88th minute before giving the award to Barry Cotter.
“What a group,” said Cotter of his brand new team-mates. “We wake up every Monday morning and we go – this is the biggest game of the season. It is showing.”
A derby with everything one could desire, then. At least RTÉ came to the rescue of Rovers fans, seemingly locked out of Richmond Park, or so it seemed until the own goal when a few of them disguised in civvies sprang to life in the main stand, but the rest of this 2,500 crowd shuffled off with glum faces.
It had been so different up to the bitter end as St Pat's 17-year-old centre half James Abankwah refused to allow Rovers steamroll to another Airtricity League title. Until he was withdrawn around the hour mark.
Rovers are almost out of sight. They arrived at Richmond Park just as news broke that their last truly dominant midfielder Jack Byrne was made redundant by Cypriot club Apoel Nicosia and watching with pride as Liam Scales made his debut for Glasgow Celtic this week, the defending champions have barely missed a beat in terms of recruitment.
Danny Mandroiu and Richie Towell may not exist on Byrne's level but together they should drive Rovers to a 19th title.
Towell's looping ball would have silenced the Camac terrace if Rory Gaffney had not strayed offside in the early exchanges but the only real chance of the first half fell to Mandroiu.
The former Brighton prospect smashed over Jaros’s crossbar on 26 minutes after Cotter’s silky touches gifted him a half volley.
Cotter was a right back by trade when Mick McCarthy gave him a debut for Ipswich Town in April 2018. Repatriated to the greatest league in the world after precious opportunity since McCarthy was sacked – also in April 2018 – Rovers have potentially got themselves a superior replacement for Scales.
He has a bit to go. After some raiding runs the 22-year-old could not control a Roberto Lopes pass that led to Chris Forrester getting two opportunities to put St Pat's in front. Forrester miscued both and was replaced by Billy King.
Rovers were equally wasteful until they weren't. Particularly Gaffney when skipper Ronan Finn burst out of the midfield stalemate.
In a game of tasty tackles, Cotter received the only yellow card after a heavy collision with an incensed Sam Bone.
When Mandroiu skied a free-kick and Bone forced a fine save from Alan Mannus a creeping feeling dawned that nobody would strike the killer blow. Even the rain dried up when Cotter ignored Towell's pleas for a pass to instead balloon a cross to nobody. Moments later manager Stephen Bradley replaced him with Neil Farrugia.
Darragh Burns and King were reading off a different script, as the St Pat's duo were determined to punish Rovers with dangerous balls into the box. When Towell cleared from his own goalmouth Dylan Watts had the foresight to launch a long ball for Aaron Greene to win it for the champions but his low, weak shot was easily stopped by Jaros.
That seemed to be the story of the night but Shamrock Rovers are champions for a reason.
ST PATRICK'S ATHLETIC: Jaros; Bone, Barrett, Abankwah (Griffin, 62), Bermingham (capt); Lennon (Melvin-Lambert, 82), Lewis, Smith ; Forrester (King, 57), Coughlan (McCormack, 82), Burns.
SHAMROCK ROVERS: Mannus; Gannon, Lopes, Grace; Finn (capt), O'Neill, Towell, Mandroiu (McCann, 79), Watts, Cotter (Farrugia, 79); Gaffney (Greene, 66).
Referee: Rob Hennessy.
FAI Cup semi-final draw: St Patrick's Athletic v Dundalk, Bohemians v Waterford. Ties to be played weekend of October 24th.