Rovers' huge sigh of relief
Fan violence takes gloss of replay semi win for Hoops
NO REJOICING but instead relief - Shamrock Rovers boss Michael O'Neill admits that was the main emotion for his side today as they booked a place in the FAI Cup final at the expense of their Dublin rivals St Patrick's Athletic last night.
A second-half goal from Rovers midfielder Chris Turner was enough for the Hoops to get the better of Pete Mahon's side in the semi-final replay at Richmond Park and earn a meeting in the final at the Aviva Stadium next month, against Turner's former club Sligo Rovers.
Sadly, the post-match incidents, when fans from both clubs clashed on the pitch at Richmond Park after a number of Rovers supporters, who had come onto the pitch to celebrate their 1-0 win, taunted Saints supporters, will be the image that neutrals will take away from a night when, up to that point, a crowd of 4,200 had enjoyed a high-octane and entertaining Dublin derby.
Fines for both clubs from the FAI are inevitable, Pats certain to be punished for lax security which saw a number of glass bottles and other potential missiles brought into the ground while Rovers will also take a hammering for the behaviour of a section of their support, and the on-field clashes brought back memories of a much darker time in football's history, though the unprepared nature of the Garda operation on the night will also raise questions.
A pity then that a fine game which preceded that nastiness was ruined by subsequent events as Rovers just managed to get over the line against a ten-man Pats side and into the final thanks to Turner's 70th minute goal, the Derry man scoring with a superb finish to beat Pats keeper Gary Rogers after a good move started by Billy Dennehy, with Gary Twigg flicking Dennehy's cross into the path of Turner.
Pats had the disadvantage of playing for most of the second half with ten men as skipper Damian Lynch was handed a straight red card for a challenge on Twigg, but as it turned out Turner's strike would be the only goal of the game, Rovers managing their first win in five games after a recent run of matches saw them give up precious league points - and also the need for last night's replay - by conceding late goals.
"For me personally it's a feeling of relief. To be in the position we are in, to lose recent games in the nature that we did was very difficult to take and if we'd fallen at this hurdle it would have been extremely disappointing, so there is relief as it means a lot to the supporters to get to a Cup final, this club obviously has a great history in the competition so it's nice to get another opportunity," said O'Neill.
"At times on Sunday, in the dressing room and even in the game, we played as if everything was lost, and it was important for the players to realise that that wasn't the case at all, and the air of gloom has lifted somewhat, we now focus on the league.
"We have massive day out at the end of the season and that will be great to be part of but our focus returns to the league, the belief - hopefully - within the squad will return and we'll see what events happen elsewhere.
"So it's probably more a feeling of relief than joy at this point in time. When you put yourself in the position we were in in the first game on Sunday and not get there on the day, I think we'd have carried that burden around with us for some time but thankfully that's not the case.
"And thankfully for Paddy Kavanagh as well, because this takes the burden off him, people will forget about that and let him concentrate on his football for the rest of the season," added O'Neill, referring to the own-goal by Rovers man Kavanagh on Sunday which forced the replay.
"If I am honest, I thought we were second-best in the first half of the game, Pats looked hungrier than we did. The game last night was very much about competing and there wasn't an inch of space on the pitch, two teams competing hard for every ball and we were second-best in that half.
"We had strong words in the dressing room at half-time and even before the sending off we had started the second half much better. The sending-off gave us that advantage, everyone knows that it's never straightforward when you're playing against ten men but we handled it very well and scored a great goal," O'Neill added.
Pats had indeed dominated the first half, Ryan Guy a constant threat to the Rovers back four as the Saints' American star went close to opening the scoring but he just failed to connect with a clever ball from Derek Doyle.
Pats suffered a blow on either side of the half-time break, first when the impressive Doyle was forced off with an injury and then eight minutes into the second half when Lynch was dismissed for tugging at Twigg, though Turner was unable to make the free kick count.
But Turner proved to be the difference on the night with that well-taken goal on 70 minutes and after that, there was no way back for the Saints, who must now look to the 2011 season - the 50th anniversary of their last Cup win - for the next bite at this particular cherry.
"We're disappointed, given that this was a Cup semi-final and we were at home," said Pats boss Pete Mahon. "I had said at the start of the season that I'd hope to win the FAI Cup this year, I know what it would have meant to the club to win it."