Stephen O’ Donnell — replacing the injured Chris Turner for Hoops, was prominent in orchestrating some promising early attacks, as both sides looked to get the ball down and pass it on a perfect playing surface. But the Derry defence had to live on its nerves, coping with the trickery of Gary McCabe on one flank and Karl Sheppard on the other, while all the time having to keep tabs on the lively movement through the middle of ace marksman Gary Twigg.
Twenty-five minutes in, and just seconds after Derry manager Stephen Kenny had tried to stiffen his defence by bringing on the experienced Eddie McCallion for the struggling Patrick McEleney, concerted Rovers pressure finally told. And it was a baptism of fire for the substitute right-back, as his main target, Gary McCabe, rose at the far post to meet Pat Sullivan’s deep cross and send a looping header beyond the reach of Gerard Doherty in the Derry goal.
It stayed that way until half-time, Rovers comfortably in charge though the narrowness of their advantage on the scoreboard offered hope to a Derry side who had only failed to score in two of their last 12 league games and who had, in Eamon Zayed, the league’s highest scorer on 11 goals.
For all the visitors’ endeavour, it always looked like a set-piece would be their most productive route to goal and so it proved on 64 minutes when Zayed met James McLean’s in-swinging corner at the near post with a glancing header.
With substitute Billy Dennehy bringing fresh zip to the home attack.
But the Hoops failure to make the most of their dominance in the first 45 and, instead of three points, they have to be happy with a three-point lead at the top.
SHAMROCK ROVERS: Mannus, Sullivan (Turner 79), Sives, Murray, Stevens, McCormack, Finn, McCabe, O’Donnell, Twigg, Sheppard (Dennehy 62).
DERRY CITY: Doherty, Molloy, Greacen, S. McEleney, Deery, P McEleney (McCallion 24), McClean, McGylnn, Higgins, Zayed, Lafferty
Referee: Richard Winter.