The next two games could be defining in St. Patrick’s Athletic season. First, the clash between the top two sides when Pat's travel to take on league leaders Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght Stadium and then a trip to Oriel Park to face a Dundalk team that have improved of late.
In 2018, with Cork City, we found ourselves in a very similar position to where Pat's are now. We had two games in the middle of the season against Dundalk – who we were a point ahead of at the time – and against Rovers, who, like Dundalk are now, showed a lot of inconsistency throughout that season but were a very strong outfit.
When I look back, those two games were where we lost the league. We lost to Dundalk in the last minute and could only manage a draw against Rovers, in a game where we missed a penalty in the final moments.
Our thinking going to Oriel Park was, ‘if we can avoid defeat, we will win the league’. We lost the game and the momentum switched between the sides. We never recovered. We let a one-point advantage turn into a five-point deficit. Deep down we knew that Dundalk would never let such a gap slip. They were too experienced.
Pat's are in the same boat in these next two fixtures. They cannot afford to allow Rovers have a significant points advantage by the time they host Waterford in two weeks, otherwise, like Dundalk did in 2018, Rovers will end up running away with the title.
I wrote weeks back about Pat's getting rid of being labelled ‘soft’ because they were going to places like Ballybofey and showing that they were prepared to do the ugly side of the game as well. But there is another kind of ‘softness’. That’s the type of ‘softness’ that is associated with teams or players that don’t turn up in the big games.
Some players step up to the occasion and show just why they are highly regarded but there are others who seem to let the big games pass them by even though they have produced the goods for their side all season.
When we look at world football, it’s those big games is that separate Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo from the rest. They have always produced when it matters and it’s why I laugh when people even suggest putting Kevin De Bruyne in the same bracket.
Has De Bruyne ever produced for Belgium when it really matters? Was he effective when it came to Manchester’s City’s big moment in the Champions League final this year? I would think not.
Experience is always a word that is used when it comes to big games. Having players in your side that have experienced success in the past is crucial. For most players, their aim will be to have won some sort of major trophy before they retire. Once they do, they feel more relaxed and naturally start to win more and more trophies. It takes away the nerves from a player.
I look back at some of the big games I played with City and nerves always got the better of me. I never scored against either Dundalk or Rovers when I returned from the UK because I was never myself in those games due to nerves.
I knew those were the games that would make the difference between me ending up with a league medal or not. I always thought heading into those matches, ‘if we don’t win, I will finish my playing career without having won a major trophy’. I could never sleep before games and it always ended up having a negative effect on my performance.
Sometimes the difference can be which team handles nerves better. Even though there is more pressure on Rovers, because of what they have achieved over the past two seasons and the trophies they have won, I don’t see many in their dressing room being nervous before this game.
So what do Pat's have to do to get something from the game tonight? Firstly, they have to stop Graham Burke, which is not easy. Burke is a big influence on the way Rovers play. He has a free role and wants to get involved in the play. He starts as a striker but drops very deep to collect the ball and makes it difficult for defenders because they don’t know whether to go in after him or not. It might be old-fashioned but if I were Stephen O’Donnell, I would get one of my players to basically follow Burke everywhere he goes and not care about what is going on around him.
Rovers' strength is down the middle of the pitch. Pat's need to force the ball wide and not allow the Hoops players pick up the ball on the half-turn in little pockets.
We all know Rovers like to play out from the back. Pats must press the champions high up the pitch and if the press is good they will force the Hoops defence into making a mistake. They can’t allow Rovers the luxury of lots of time on the ball.
This isn’t a must-win for Pat's but it is one they cannot afford to lose if they want to remain in a title race.