Friday, August 31, 2007

One Night In Tolka

Longford were in town, I'd never had the pleasure of seeing them in the flesh before and felt as excited as Ronan O'Gara must have when he discovered platinum. I battled my way through the crowds at the schoolboy friendly in the shadow of Tolka Park. Within the stadium, the players were going through the usual prematch routines; Jamie Duffy and Ian Ryan were ruled out of this one; felt a bit stupid for forgetting that, but at least nobody knows. A late change meant Dave Freeman stepped down, Collie James stepped up.

The teams disappeared down the plastic tunnel; the build up began. First it was the 4th official, carrying everything. Then it was Aidan Price and Padraig Amond. What a welcome sight it must have been for the assembled Hoops followers to see the injured skipper bound into his seat. It must have been Mrs. Assistant Referee's turn to pick the colours, a nice summery yellow best suited her hair tone and skin complexion; it was nearly time for kick off.

A minute is a long time to clap, no matter how enthusiastic one is feeling. My hands were sore. Still, I yearned to see Ollie trundle across Tolka Park just one more time. And so it began! I had sensed banana skin about this game all week and was curious about how Pat Scully's side would approach the game.

Mark Rutherford should have done better from Dessie Baker's (read spectacular if you will, but it wasn't) overhead cross as the visitors turned the screw early on. Surely the names of Barry Ferguson and Alan Reynolds are already marked for yellow cards before kick off in every game; Pat Whelan had obviously forgotten to do so, but rectified the anomaly within the opening quarter.

Dessie Baker almost flicked his way through the Hoops' backline, but his incision was blunted. The roars of the behooped fans betrayed their nervousness at the effectiveness of the Town's opening. When Rennie saw yellow their opposites burst into a chorus of 'Reynolds you're a comeback', or words to that effect; the acoustics of Tolka Park sometimes distort the vocals.

Baker's form was as hot as fresh excrement; his free kick delivery snaked across the Rovers goal and beyond the far post. Dave Mooney kicked out, allegedly, as he lay on the ground; Pat Whelan seemingly couldn't hear the roars of the crowd and so took no action. Eventually following strenuous effort, Mooney got his card; thirty-two minutes had elapsed. The Town striker responded with an effort which flashed across Barry Murphy's goal; the bottom feeders were looking the most likely scorers at this stage.

Alan Matthews' side were matching their lustrous opposition in every department except defence. Here there were but two options for the Town throughout the game; as high as you can or as hard as you can. Still there was something discomforting about seeing Rovers outfought and outworked across the pitch. While they may have lacked finesse in defence and midfield, Longford possessed a definite threat in the skill of Mooney and Baker up front.

Any openings fell the visitors' way; it would be unfair to call them chances. Then Mooney found the net on the stroke of half time; the man in yellow had already blown for offside. Scoreless at the break, Hoops fans hoped that their title chasing side would improve in the second half. In the meantime, Raheny United's under 7 squad, jerseys down to their knees hogged the floodlight during the interval; eventually they were lured from the playing area.

No changes at half time then. Rovers went close; Mark Rutherford closer, in the early exchanges of the second half. And what a treasure it was to see the winger in action; his appearance at Tolka recalled many a cold Friday night which he warmed up for me with his searing pace on the left wing for Shels. The visitors claimed the prize for first corner of the game, it came to nowt.

Inexplicably, they became incontinent at the back for a brief period; but long enough to rouse the voices of the muted Hooperatzi. As the hour mark approached, Scully opted for a double substitution. If journos could talk they'd ask for Rennie - to be taken off- his presence disrupts the tempo of this Rovers side. I don't understand Pat Scully's thinking on this. The introduction of Paul Shiels immediately gave birth to a passing game from the home eleven. They began to find space; play football - in a game which to then had been chronically lacking in guile and poise.

Alan Matthews then opted for a substitution - he has been using them sparingly this season. The stadium announcer was filled with concern for the plight of the departing Collie James. The former Galway United man struggled to find his bench but was commended upon finally doing so by the friendly voice. Indeed, every chance that came their way was exploited to its maximium by the strugglers. Time was not of the essence to them, just a point.

Andy Myler could not believe his good fortune as the ball dropped to him in the opposition box; Sean Prunty appeared to step back, but urgently reconsidered in the nick of time. Flinging himself at the attacker, he managed to distract him sufficiently to avert the danger. Owen Doyle's introduction for Rovers seemed to temporarily enlighten their attacking ideas.

Panic was setting in on the Town bench; the visitors were beginning to fall back, and there were over fifteen minutes left to play. 'Get to the ball', screamed Matthews; not to suggest that Scully was entirely happy. The fourth official headed in his direction regularly throughout the second half, sedative in hand.

We search and search for turning points. I found one. Owen Doyle delivered impeccably from the left; for the second time in the half Longford's defence were sleeping. The ball dropped beautifully to David Cassidy. You know how it is, it never drops this way to you on the pitch, rarely in training, sometimes on the road. Casso let it bounce, then struck it meatily. We saw the first save of the game, and a worthy one it was.

Shay Kelly turned it away for a corner. There was some excellent postman on postman action as Ferguson and Doherty mailhandled each other in anticipation of the delivery. It too came to nowt. Rovers went for a tight front three, but Ger Rowe was strangely ineffective. No defender can ever take his eye off him, though; Rowe burst through, Doherty pulled him back, Rowe miscued, the centre half was booked. This was not in accordance with Pat Scully's wishes.

And so it seemed that it was to be a draw. Longford won a late free kick. Baker's delivery was once more, impeccable - possibly the best player on the park - it found Damien Brennan all alone on the far side. His header combined three necessary attributes. It was firm. It was downward. It was accurate. It was offside. It was the last minute of the prescribed ninety. Much frustration for the gallant and enthusiastic Longford supporters.

The fourth official has indicated that there will be a minimum of three extra minutes. Woo-hoo, three minutes for the Hoops to snatch one of those lovely late winners. STAND UP IF YOU'RE LONGFORD TOWN, and they did. Proud of their players, proud of their point. Suddenly Mooney is on the ball at the Ballybough end; as ever Ferguson is in close attendance. Close enough to grab a firm hold of Mooney's shirt. The striker ignores the action; he only has eyes for goal. He slips the grip, then slips the ball beyond Barry Murphy - Murphy can see it, but he cannot reach it; it's going in, yes, it's going in, it's in - because you're worth it.

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