Shamrock Rovers may still hold the whip hand but their grip suddenly seems a whole lot shakier after champions Bohemians served notice that they will not easily surrender their crown in a compelling game at Dalymount Park.
With three games to go, two points are all that now separate the great rivals, thanks to veteran striker Jason Byrne’s decisive goal in the first half last night.
An explosive atmosphere prevailed before kick-off, with flares flaming in the stands and the rival fans baiting each other across the pitch.
And the game itself began at a furious pace, the usual bragging rights associated with this most intense of Dublin derbies eclipsed by the reality that here was a contest which could herald a sea-change in Irish football’s order of merit.
Not surprisingly then, there was plenty of bite in the tackles and not a few nervous touches, though it was Bohs, with captain Paul Keegan a model of composure, who kept better possession of the ball in the opening quarter of an hour.
Rovers, however, were defending in numbers, sometimes getting as many as 10 men behind the ball even at this early stage, so that Bohs’ best efforts on goal were restricted to unthreatening shots from distance.
But all that changed in the 21st-minute when, deservedly, the home side’s dominance was converted into the breakthrough goal. And it came at the end of a fine passing move, with Ken Oman nodding down a Glenn Cronin chip into the path of Jason Byrne who finished with a true striker’s authority.
If Rovers, with Gary Twigg too often isolated as the lone frontman in a 4-5-1 line-up, had ever entertained notions of settling for a draw, they now knew they would have to come out to play to achieve that bare minimum.
And, in the costly absence yet again of former Cork City skipper Dan Murray – who is now out for the rest of the season having had knee surgery – they also knew that they could ill-afford another breach at the back.
Just past the half-hour mark, Byrne was forced to limp from the pitch with a calf injury, his replacement the sorcerer’s apprentice Paddy Madden, who was being watched last night by Reading manager Brian McDermott.
And it was Bohemians, with both full-backs eager to join the attack, who continued to apply the bulk of the pressure, as Pat Fenlon’s men gave every sign that they would not lightly relinquish their title.
And the angry words exchanged between his assistant Liam O’Brien and Rovers boss Michael O’Neill as they walked off the pitch at half-time left no-one in any doubt of just how high the stakes were in this game.
Neither did the Hoops boss waste any more time in tackling his own team, Thomas Stewart replacing Paddy Kavanagh for the second period as the visitors went 4-4-2.
And the reshuffle almost immediately paid dividends but only because of a dreadful skied back pass from Oman which put his ‘keeper under pressure in the air from Billy Dennehy and resulted in a mini-siege of the Bohs goal which saw Gary Twigg’s effort blocked on the line by Brian Shelley and, from the rebound, James Chambers’ powerful shot denied by Murphy’s save.
Suddenly, the proverbial game of two halves seemed to be unfolding before our eyes, the Bohs defence creaking under the pressure of a succession of corners and long throws.
But the home side weathered the storm and, even though the introduction of Neale Fenn and Dessie Baker meant that the Hoops ended up with four strikers on the pitch, Bohs eventually saw out the game with a minimum of fuss. Indeed, had Madden been a touch more clinical in front of goal, they might have made things more comfortable for themselves before the inevitable nerve-jangling final few minutes.
But hold on they did and, as the Rovers faithful in a crowd of 3,400 left Dalymount, it was to the sound of the gleeful Bohs support chanting: ‘Can you feel it slip away?’
The next three games will answer that question. Meanwhile, the FAI will be expected to investigate an incident at the end of the game in which Bohemians manager Pat Fenlon appeared to be struck by an object thrown from the crowd.
Fenlon declined to talk about the incident afterwards, saying: “I’m not going to get into that.’’
BOHEMIANS: Murphy, Rossiter, Shelley, Oman, Powell, Brennan, Cronin, Keegan, Brennan, McGlynn, Byrne (Madden 35), Cretaro (Greene 85)
SHAMROCK ROVERS: Mannus, Flynn, Price, Sives, Stevens, Kavanagh (Stewart 45), Rice, Turner, Chambers (Fenn 68), Dennehy (Baker 78), Twigg
Referee: Alan Kelly (Cork).