Rovers' big challenge: Bradley eyes second spot for revived Hoops
Stephen Bradley has challenged his Shamrock Rovers side to target a place in the top two of the league table by going on a run of wins.
Their weekend win over Dundalk, on a night when second-placed Bray Wanderers dropped points at home to St Patrick's Athletic, has given the Hoops the impetus to move on up in the standings from the mid-table slot they have occupied all season.
But for Dundalk, it's grim times as boss Stephen Kenny tries to turn things around in a season which has seen the champions lose five times in 11 games and find themselves 15 points adrift of Cork City who are already looking like champions-elect.
"I'm not even looking at Cork, in all seriousness, we need to get ourselves right. We have to get back on track," Kenny says as he tries to lift flagging spirits ahead of a weekend meeting with Sligo Rovers, who enjoyed a 3-0 win over Limerick on Saturday night in the first test for new boss Gerard Lyttle.
Rovers have struggled to compete with Dundalk since their former boss Stephen Kenny took over at Oriel Park but Friday's 2-1 defeat of the champions was, it seems, not only a sign that this Dundalk side is in real decline but also hinted that Bradley's side can challenge for a top-two finish, though not the title itself.
"We have to aim for Bray," says Bradley.
"Cork, to be fair to them, are flying, but Bray is our target now, we need to go and win as many games as we can. In the last round of games we didn't pick up as many points as we should have, we know that as a group but we are already three points better off so we need to kick on next Friday," Bradley added, his mind already on Friday's cross-city trip to face Bohemians.
"It's a derby, it will be a massive crowd with everyone up for it, after a big win like that (Dundalk) you want to follow it up with a big game, and the derby is the one. It's three points, a good three points but that's all it is and we need to go and build. We need to keep working towards where we want to get to.
"We know we are not a million miles away from putting a run together and hopefully last Friday was the start of something.
"I know what this group has, even when we are losing games. That's what you get with a new group, there's no getting away from that, it takes time, and we will make mistakes down the road, that's the way the group is."
Rovers were dominant against the reigning champions and it was encouraging for boss Bradley to deliver the win after some recent disappointments, like a 1-1 draw at home to Limerick seven days earlier.
"We had been playing in 15 or 20 minute spells, I think Friday was the first time we had played for a long period of time and we looked comfortable," he says.
"We played as a proper team. Out in Bray we were brilliant for the first 20 minutes but were disgraceful in the last 15 minutes.
"We did that in Drogheda, started well and were terrible for 10 minutes. We have done that all season, been good in patches but the bad patches have let us down.
"On Friday we looked like a team which knew each other's jobs. The previous week (Limerick) we dropped too deep as a team so it's not just about the back four, against Dundalk we stood up as a team and took responsibility and stood up to the team that's been the best in the country for the last three years."
Dundalk manager Kenny is at a loss to explain how his side have started their bid for a four-in-a-row so poorly, though he admits that a previously-impressive away form has been lost along the way.
"We have always had great away form and that's been our strength, we have been good at home this year and won all our games, bar the Bray debacle, but away we haven't been good enough, lost four out of six and that's poor, we were traditionally better away from home than at Oriel Park," Kenny says.
"Rovers was a disappointing defeat and we can't hide from that. We conceded two poor goals from our point of view, the cornerstone of our success was never conceding from set plays, we had this culture of not doing that, so to do what we did on Friday isn't good at all.
"We have lost two weeks in a row now by giving poor goals away, and if we do that, it's giving ourselves a very difficult task in the game."