By Matthew Foley

Shamrock Rovers extended their lead at the top of the SSE Airtricity League to five points on Sunday evening thanks to an incredible late comeback against Shelbourne at Tallaght Stadium. A brace from Dan Cleary and a last-minute strike from Rory Gaffney were enough to secure a massive three points on a night of high drama.

Stephen Bradley made six changes to the side that lined out in Norway on Thursday evening, with Sean Gannon, Dylan Watts, Graham Burke, Rory Gaffney, Neil Farrugia and Jack Byrne all returning to the starting XI.

The Hoops started the game on top, keeping possession and linking up well down the flanks, with Andy Lyons and Gaffney looking to cause problems for the Shels back line. Despite the positive start, it was Shels who broke the deadlock 15 minutes into the game. JJ Lunney’s header from midfield found its way through the Rovers defence and into the path of Shane Farrell who dinked the ball over the advancing Alan Mannus to give Damien Duff’s side an early lead.

The Hoops responded and were level 10 minutes later when an inch perfect Jack Byrne delivery from a corner found the head of Dan Cleary who applied the finishing touch to equalise. Momentum was now with Rovers who came close to taking the lead when Graham Burke swivelled and shot towards goal but Clarke pushed the effort away to safety and behind for a corner.

As we entered first-half injury time, the Hoops were hit with a gut punch. A pinpoint ball into the box by Mark Coyle fell to Shane Farrell who directed his first-time strike past the outstretched Mannus to restore the visitors advantage going in at the break.

Stephen Bradley introduced Sean Hoare & Pico Lopes at half time in an attempt to solidify the defence and give the Hoops the platform to push forward in search of a way back into the game. Unsurprisingly, Rovers started the half with purpose and urgency, controlling possession and looking to carve out opportunities against a camped Shels defence. As the game entered the final ten minutes, the unrelenting pressure finally paid off as Dan Cleary equalised with his second of the game. Neil Farrugia’s cross from the right found the head of Aaron Greene who’s effort could only be parried into the path of Cleary who reacted quickest to fire into the roof of the net. Rovers retrieved the ball and raced back towards the halfway line eager to restart the game. We were set for a grandstand finish.

Momentum was firmly with Rovers now who piled bodies forward in search of a late winner. As the game entered four minutes of injury time, Hoops fans were praying for just one more opportunity and that appeared to come and go when Aaron Greene was presented with a gift from an under hit back pass but his strike went the wrong side of the post and wide. Hoops fans might have wondered whether that was the moment they had been hoping and praying for, however this Rovers team don’t stop believing and have a strength of character that has seen them score so many late goals and earn so many points and that character would come to the fore yet again.

The Hoops were awarded a corner in what would surely be the last play of an en trawling tie. Byrne’s corner was flicked on by a Shelbourne defender, with the ball falling to Gaffney at the back post whose first-time left-footed volley back across goal beat Clarke and found the back of the net to win the game for Rovers in the most dramatic of fashion. It was almost the last kick of the game with Rob Harvey blowing the full time whistle after the restart as Tallaght Stadium erupted in celebration.

Victory puts Rovers five points clear of second place Derry City with just four games left of the league season.

Speaking to RTE after the game, Gaffney said:

“I thought we weren’t going to get a chance and thankfully we did.

“It’s been a tough couple of weeks for us, but we obviously back ourselves. It’s probably just tired bodies at the minute, but we just have to keep going.

“With three or four weeks left just have to get our work done.

“The league is our bread and butter, it’s the most important thing. Europe is great but it’s just a bonus at the end of the day.

“If we don’t win the league, we won’t have the same opportunity next season.”

“We just have to keep ticking the league games off. It’s a cup final each week.”

Up next for the Hoops is a return to UEFA Europa Conference League action as Molde will come to visit Tallaght Stadium in what will be an intriguing Group F match up.

Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Sean Gannon (Sean Hoare, 46), Lee Grace (Roberto Lopes, 46), Daniel Cleary; Neil Farrugia, Andy Lyons; Gary O’Neill (Aaron Greene, 62), Dylan Watts; Graham Burke, Jack Byrne; Rory Gaffney.

Subs not used: L Pohls, R Towell, J Ferizaj, R Finn, S Kavanagh; V Serdenyuk.

Booked: J Byrne.

Shelbourne: Brendan Clarke; John Ross Wilson, Luke Byrne, Stephen Negru, Shane Griffin; Kameron Ledwidge (Gavin Molloy, 46), JJ Lunney (Josh Giurgi, 46), Mark Coyle (Aaron O’Driscoll, 93); Shane Farrell (Aodh Dervin, 75), Matty Smith; Sean Boyd (Dan Carr, 75).

Subs not used: A O’Driscoll, B McManus, G Arubi; S van-der-Sluis

Booked: J Lunney, K Ledwidge, S Boyd, B Clarke, D Carr; M Smith.

Referee: Rob Harvey.

9 October 2022; Daniel Cleary of Shamrock Rovers celebrates after scoring his side’s first goal during the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division match between Shamrock Rovers and Shelbourne at Tallaght Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
9 October 2022; Daniel Cleary of Shamrock Rovers, right, celebrates with teammate Rory Gaffney after scoring their side’s first goal during the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division match between Shamrock Rovers and Shelbourne at Tallaght Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile