Wednesday, May 16, 2007

ROB OF THE ROVERS

Robbie Clarke, Aidan Price and Barry Murphy - each one a near ever present in the Shamrock Rovers First Division title winning side of 2006. Across 36 fixtures the celebrated backline conceded a mere 13 goals. Ger O'Brien was, and remains, another mainstay of that defence. Barry Ferguson was brought in to add some Premier Division guile and experience for this season's campaign.

In their opening ten games of this year's Premier League renewal the Hoops have conceded a miserly seven goals; bettered only by Dublin rivals Bohs and Pats. When one takes into account that Rovers have already engaged all of the so called top sides, this represents a fantastic achievement.

Realistically, the goals against statistic masks the fact that of those, only Cork City - who are not having the most 'top side' of seasons - have dropped points to the newcomers. Pat Scully acknowledged as much himself in his piece to camera following the disappointing reversal at the Brandywell last Monday.

Even the most blinkered eL fan must concede that Scully's Babies deserved a point from that game. At times it seemed as if Rovers would molest football; although they never quite hit those heights. Aside from the early exchanges of the first and second halves the visitors had the soles of their feet comfortably flat on the floor of the swimming pool.

It was during that bedding in period at the onset of the game that Derry were at their most potent. Twice Kevin McHugh received possession - twice he ran directly at the visitor's backline, on each occasion with the effect of a cat scattering feral pigeons. Somehow, the ball was scrambled to safety. While the Rovers defenders were still getting the measure of their immediate opponents Pat McCourt got on the ball. He was given space, and the inevitable happened. There were almost 80 minutes of the game remaining, but they found no way back.

Prior to kick off, eyeing up the respective forward lines, it seemed apparent that neither front pairing would outplay their sentries. And so it was. But as has been said before, the line between failure and success at the top level of any sport is as narrow as an ant's rectum. Roy O'Donovan's introduction and subsequent yellow card in Cork's meaningless Setanta group fixture against Dungannon Swifts may ultimately have cost the Southerners a place in the final of that honeypot.

Royboy was suspended as a result of that booking - he missed the molestation of Linfield - the presence of the side's most lethal frontman would surely have swung the game their way. A similarly big decision was Pat Scully's call prior to Monday night's action.

The aforementioned Robbie Clarke is a fine player, going through a rough patch. He has started all but the last two of his side's games this season. Dropped in favour of Derek Pender for the game with Sligo Rovers, he entered the fray on the hour mark. Dropped in favour of the previously untried Dean Lawrence for the Derry game - the damage had been done by the time he entered the action late in the second half.

No disrespect to Dean Lawrence; a player has to make his debut someplace, and he will be good enough. But face to face with one of the league's most gifted players, at the Brandywell; well the gods are not exactly on your side are they? Lawrence didn't come in at left full - instead regular right back Ger O'Brien was switched to the opposite side in order to accommodate the debutant. This caused a double disruption to the backline. The gifted player?

Paddy McCourt in full flight is a beautiful sight to behold; unless he's coming your way. The most experienced of defenders would feel a quick squirt of sweat; dreading the possibility of being exposed. The simple antidote to this is cover. The right-sided midfielder helps out his full back. But Lawrence's covering player was Jamie Duffy.

Jamie Duffy is a talented ball player; often his contribution to the game is more garnish than substance. A sometimes frustrating player who flits in and out of the game, showing tantalising glimpses of ability. It must be acknowledged that he worked harder than I have ever seen him work before in a Rovers shirt on Monday; but he is no more a defensive midfielder than Sean Connor is a sportswear designer. Thus the Hoops right flank was exposed. As the game progressed the efforts of Ian Ryan helped to nullify McCourt's threat; but the centre half turned central midfielder was having to cover a lot of ground.

Eventually Lawrence succumbed to cramp; Ger O'Brien moved back across to his customary spot, and Robbie Clarke slotted in on the left. The sky did not fall in. What was Pat Scully thinking? Derry don't pose a powerful threat down their right side; even an out of sorts Robbie Clarke could have contended with what was on offer. This would have freed up Ger O'Brien to nullify McCourt's early efforts. On such minutiae are points won and lost.

Ultimately, Rovers didn't have the nous to outwit the Candystripes defence. They certainly caused uncomfortable moments for Kelly and Oman, but the enforced pairing of Purcell and Myler looked too one-paced to worry two solid defenders. It was surprising not to see Ger Rowe used in a more central role when he was introduced.

Without the presence of Danny O'Connor in the middle there was something lacking. Tommy Barrett was injured; yet he doesn't seem to have settled into his rhythm yet. Derek Pender would have provided the sort of cover that Dean Lawrence needed, also injured. Credit must go to Pat Scully; his side are largely inexperienced. He has cultivated an ethos of hard work and self belief within the squad. There is no such word as consolidation in the Rovers dressing room. Of course, it is easier to believe when you are picking up points; there looms ahead twenty three tough games, assuming every club remains in the league until November of course.

Hopefully the Hoops continue to pick up points, and continue to believe for the club very much represents the future of football in Dublin City. With young players such as Purcell, Lawrence Cassidy, Kilduff, the McGills et al on board the future is bright. Bring on Tallaght.

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