An early goal by new signing Danny North meant it was Shamrock Rovers who started their league campaign with a precious win on a night when a hard-fought but scrappy Dublin derby against St Pat’s was repeatedly blown off course by a gale-force wind at Tallaght Stadium.
On paper, the occasion was not so much Hamlet without the Prince, as Hamlet without the Prince, the King, the Queen, Ophelia, Polonious, Horatio and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, an opening night production under the bright lights and in front of the cameras robbed, even before the curtain went up, of some of its leading players.
As a consequence of the draconian four-strikes-and-you’re-out yellow peril hanging over from last season, Pat Fenlon’s Rovers were denuded of box office attractions Keith Fahey and Stephen McPhail in the middle of the park for the big kick-off, while Liam Buckley’s St Pats were similarly denied a gifted midfielder in Killian Brennan.
Brennan’s brothers Ryan and Gavin and goalkeeper Barry Murphy extended the Hoops’ suspended list to five, while impressive defender Sean Hoare was an absentee for the visitors.
Hardly the ideal circumstances for a big Dublin derby — made more unforgiving by the weather — but there was still quality on show, with the elegant Chris Forrester and ace marksman Christy Fagan both in the Pats starting XI where they were joined by ex-Rovers men Jason McGuinness and Ciaran Kilduff. For depleted Rovers, the hope was that North would bring his goal touch with him from Sligo — and that he did, midway through the first half.
In the early exchanges, Rovers’ Pat Cregg, advancing from midfield, sent a low drive skidding wide of the post after just 10 minutes and, with Sean O’Connor following suit six minutes later, the notion of keeping the ball down was a good one on a night when the wicked wind played havoc with anything in the air — and, frequently breathed unwelcome life into the dead ball too.
The conditions, in theory at least, have been more suited to Pats passing game. But, in the 17th minute, the elements worked in the home side’s favour, Brendan Clarke’s kick-out dying in the air short of the halfway line and, when Rovers new boy Max Blanchard arrived first to the dropping ball, he returned it instantly on the volley for the opportunistic North, getting behind the Pats rearguard, to earn the instant affections of his new fan base with a precision-guided finish from a tight angle.
Rovers came close to doubling their advantage in the 25th minute, Gary McCabe’s swerving effort bringing the best out of Brendan Clarke as it he dived full-length to turn the ball around the post.
Liam Buckley’s men might have had the wind at their backs in the second 45 — too much wind, they would have protested — but, even though much of the game was played in the Rovers’ half, with Chris Forrester much more influential than in the first period, Hoops keeper Craig Hyland had still not been properly tested as the game entered its final minutes.
Conor Kenna did cause brief palpitations for the Hoops when inadvertently heading over his own bar but, even with Buckley’s bench emptied and an additional five minutes, the closest the Saints came was right at the very death when Hyland did brilliantly to tip a Kilduff header against the bar, although the linesman’s flag appeared to be already up.
Hyland, Byrne, Kenna, Webster, Madden, Waters (Drennan 88), O’Connor, Cregg, Blanchard, O’ Connor, McCabe, North
Clarke, McCormack, McGuiness (Desmond 76), Browne, Birmingham, Byrne (McGrath 70), Bolger, Chambers, Forrester (Markey 80), Kilduff, Fagan.