The end of a season, but the start of a new rivalry

The Shamrock Rovers boss took the moment in, through a millisecond of tranquillity.

The end of a season, but the start of a new rivalry

He stayed calm as Gary O’Neill’s winning penalty rolled into the bottom-right corner.

He didn’t jump 10 feet into the air, or make a mad dash to be among the players in front of the supporters, as they all celebrated with abandon.

Instead, Stephen Bradley stood still.

The Shamrock Rovers boss took the moment in, through a millisecond of tranquillity.

And then the roar came.

He was embraced by assistant Glen Cronin with a bear hug so tight his runners might have popped off with the pressure.

Bradley then turned to compose himself.

He ran his fingers through his hair to tidy himself up before shaking hands with some of the Dundalk staff. Opposite number Vinny Perth offered his hand and a hug, with some words of congratulations no doubt.

Bradley — who turns 35 later this month and is of age to feel comfortable wearing those runners with his cup final suit — and Perth (43), are two managers who can shape the next decade of football in this country with their attractive styles of play.

But here, in the national stadium and with silverware up for grabs, such notions would hardly have been anywhere near the top priority.

It was all about winning, and it was Rovers who triumphed. As the seconds passed after victory, Bradley allowed himself to lose control slightly when he ran towards Stephen McPhail, the club’s technical director, and jumped into him, wrapping his legs around his waist.

Then he made his way over to the officials, shook their hands one by one and was summoned by RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue for his immediate thoughts on ending Rovers’ 32-year cup drought.

“I’m delighted for the players, delighted for the fans and everyone associated with the club, I’m so proud of them,” he said standing in the middle of the pitch.

“I’m unbelievably proud of the group. All credit to my players, they never gave up, they stayed together. For us as a group, this is massive to take us to the next level. We’ve been building, trying to catch Dundalk — winning something gives you that belief.”

Bradley then walked away, still calm, still somehow keeping his emotions in check.

Rovers chairman Jonathan Roche strode in his direction and the pair embraced. It was a lovely moment, seeing as the club’s board, criticised previously for their sharpness in jettisoning managers under pressure, kept the faith with Bradley last season when some of the Rovers faithful — a chunk of whom would have been behind the goal where Rovers won the game — were growing tired of his talk of building for the future.

Well, they got a taste of what it could be like under Bradley here.

The Dubliner eventually released fist pumps in the direction of family in the crowd and, as he stood on the touchline, Aaron McEneff raced 20 yards to jump on his back.

Once Bradley released who it was he got a hold of the Derry native — whose 90th-minute penalty looked to have won the final in normal time before Michael Duffy’s equaliser three minutes later — and their embrace illustrated the bond between the manager and this group of players.

These were the immediate moments of joy after victory. What happens next — and make no mistake, the planning is already in place for 2020 — will be crucial in what could become the defining rivalry in the League of Ireland.

This felt like the start of something special, rather than the end of a tough season.

Irish football’s showpiece was won by Rovers and the immediate future looks set to be dominated by these two clubs.

Their rivalry simmered throughout a league campaign in which the Lilywhites finished 11 points clear, and it came to the boil in dramatic circumstances here.

Amid the drama of two late goals and subsequent penalty shoot-out, dead-eyed observers might rightly point to the fact occasions like this can sometimes become routine.

For Dundalk, they already are — this being their fifth final in a row, the previous four of which all came against Cork City.

Now, with billionaire Dermot Desmond providing a seven-figure injection of funds in Rovers and a US investment firm backing Dundalk for the past two years, they have the sort of money beyond the wildest dreams of others — not to mention the European cash that dwarfs the prizemoney at play for domestic competition.

This morning, such promise will be hard to reckon with for the Dundalk players.

It will be of little consolation to them as they mourn a lost place in history with a domestic treble.

Rovers goalkeeper Alan Mannus stood straight ahead as ‘Amhrán Na bhFiann’ was played before kick-off.

Custom may dictate that those taking part in pre-match formalities turn to face the Irish tricolour for the national anthem, as all the other players did, but the former Northern Ireland international maintained a fixed stare towards the touchline.

Just as well the veteran stopper showed far great movement to make superb saves from Daniel Cleary and Jordan Flores in the shootout.

Allied with Duffy’s effort hitting the bar, it meant O’Neill had the chance to win it.

He was the calmest man around.

Bradley pushed him a close second, but second place in the league won’t be the target for Rovers next season. This, and the days to follow, will be for Rovers to savour.

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