MICHAEL O'NEILL admits that his Shamrock Rovers side will have to garner four wins from their last four games if they are to retain their league title following last night's 1-1 draw at home to a 10-man Bohemians.
At half-time, it was all going the way of the Hoops as they had home advantage, held that astonishing home record against Bohs, had a 1-0 lead courtesy of Dan Murray's 31st-minute goal and were also up against 10 men as Bohs had striker Aidan Downes dismissed for a second booking just before the break.
But as Rovers struggled against the 10 men, Bohs gained confidence, got an equalising goal through Glenn Cronin on the hour mark, and some wasteful finishing from Rovers late on prevented them from adding that vital second goal.
Bohs remain in fifth place but seldom has a 1-1 draw been as celebrated by their supporters.
The biggest cheers of the night were coming from the homes and pubs of Sligo where their fans watched the game on TV, as Sligo Rovers now retain a two-point lead over the Hoops, although the Dublin side do have a game in hand.
Rovers could even find themselves five points behind on Sunday as Sligo are in action next Saturday, away to St Patrick's Athletic, and after last night's slip-up, the road ahead is clear for the champions.
“We've put ourselves in this position. We have to win the four games, if we don't do that then we don't win it,” admitted a rueful O'Neill after his side's amazing run against Bohs at Tallaght – five wins in five games – ended.
“I'm disappointed. We stopped playing when the game went to 10 men even though we'd been well on top before that. We reinforced to the players at half-time how to approach the second half but they didn't do that.
“We played the second half in second gear, we showed a lack of game-knowledge with bad decisions, we had enough chances to win the game but didn't take them.”
The Hoops put their fans through some amount of anguish at the tail end of last season before finally winning the title, on goal difference ahead of Bohs, and there may be a repeat.
“It's a different squad of players now, personally I wouldn't like to go through all that again but it looks like we're going to go through that again,” added O'Neill.
Rovers had started brightly and showed signs of intent early on, with Billy Dennehy, Gary Twigg and Gary O'Neill all causing problems for Bohs ’keeper Barry Murphy before he was beaten on 31 minutes, after a simple header from Dan Murray from Dennehy's corner.
Referee Derek Tomney angered both teams with a series of poor decisions and undeserved yellow cards.
That cost Bohs a minute before the break when their striker Downes was shown a yellow for an alleged dive, his second caution of the day. Even O'Neill called it a “ridiculous sending off”.
But Bohs showed some steel with 10 men and on 60 minutes they were rewarded when Cronin finished off from a good lay-off by Anto Flood. Rovers piled forward in search of that winning goal but when Ciaran Kilduff headed wide from close range five minutes from time, it was clear it wasn't going to be Rovers' night.
The selection of half-time music from Rovers – ditties like ‘Bye Bye Baby’, ‘When Will I See You Again’, ‘Money's Too Tight To Mention’ – made it clear that the Hoops don't expect their old rivals to join them in the top flight next season.
And while the whole future of the Phibsboro club is shrouded in doubt, with vital talks due this week in relation to a rescue package from one backer, Fenlon feels that his players showed some real desire.
“They showed real character last night but they've done that all season,” said Fenlon. “I was delighted to get the point and it was the least we deserved.
“Our supporters last night were magnificent, they’ve come to Tallaght and taken stick over the years so I was delighted that they went home happy.”