Sligo rattle Hoops hopes
Defeat for O'Neill's men at death blows title race open
LAST NIGHT'S result in Tallaght has thrown the title race wide open as the home side, Shamrock Rovers, with their eye on next week's Europa League fixture, lost 2-1 to Sligo Rovers.
Nine-man Rovers conceded an injury-time goal to a Sligo side who had a greater need for a victory and, on the overall balance of play, deserved the win, which brings them to within three points of new leaders Derry City.
Nevertheless, there was fury around Tallaght at the second-half dismissal of Pat Sullivan which gave Sligo a significant advantage, even if they had to fall behind before launching a comeback that concluded with a triumphant John Dillon header.
With a hectic schedule on the horizon, Michael O'Neill's charges face a serious fight to retain their crown.
It was the Hoops who threatened first, with Rohan Ricketts producing a moment on his home debut which hinted at the ability that made him a Premier League player in his teens.
The ex-Spurs man released Gary Twigg with a delicate chip that Phil Mickelson would have been proud of. Rovers' top marksman collected, but lost his balance and stabbed wide.
O'Neill's other Europa League-inspired acquisition, Scottish left-full Jim Paterson, was introduced to Joseph Ndo. Unfortunately for him, the mercurial playmaker was in the mood, drifting in from the right flank to cause a variety of problems.
In a period when Sligo dominated, an attempted cross from the former Cameroon international rebounded off the post with Ryan Thompson beaten.
Both teams had started with hybrid 4-2-3-1 formations, and the hosts switched in a bid to alter the flow with Karl Sheppard pushed up to support Twigg. Shortly after, Chris Turner was duly levelled by Danny Ventre with the natives furious that ref Damien Hancock reached for yellow instead of red.
Ex-Hoops man Eoin Doyle should have scored twice, firing wildly off target with just Thompson to beat, and then finding Dan Murray in place to make a goal-line clearance.
Sligo were given a boost on the hour mark. Belgrade goal hero Sullivan was awarded a second yellow for being deemed to have thrown the ball away after conceding a corner.
But O'Neill's team found the ideal response. Ricketts embarked on a weaving run that culminated in a teasing delivery; Twigg rose highest to break the deadlock.
From there, it was a case of holding on. Sligo continued to find gaps. On two separate occasions, Matthew Blinkhorn was released into space only for Thompson to race from his line and close the door. Richie Ryan picked up the rebound from the first and fizzed a goalward effort that stand-in right-back Stephen Rice swept away.
Sub Billy Dennehy who almost doubled the advantage from a swift counter. And it was a miss that Rovers would regret 10 minutes from time when Russell drifted into the box and smashed beyond Thompson.
O'Neill brought on Pat Flynn for Rice, but he made the wrong kind of impression with a shocking tackle on Iarflaith Davoren; this time, there were no protests when Hancock again reached for the red card.
It was a costly moment of indiscipline that was punished at the death. Ndo wandered into space and chipped to the far post where half-time arrival Dillon timed his run to convert.