THE signs bode well for Gary O’Neill on his arrival at Tallaght Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
“We were in the away team dressing room and my kit was laid out in the same spot as the FAI Cup final two years ago,” explained the Shamrock Rovers striker who scored the winning goal for Sporting Fingal against Sligo Rovers in the Blue Riband decider in 2009.
“I thought that was a good omen. I’d like to start scoring a few more if I’m honest, but it was great to start scoring today,” added the 29-year-old of his first goal for Rovers.
O’Neill finally found his scoring touch, and Billy Dennehy added a very late second, as Rovers supplemented the coveted tag of All-Ireland champions to their list of achievements.
Man-of-the-match Ronan Finn punished an error by Dundalk central defender Michael Hector to get to the end line and pull the ball back for O’Neill to shoot to the roof of the net from close range to give a most agreeable spectacle its lead goal on 65 minutes.
Dennehy didn’t seal the win until the third minute of added time. Latching onto Gary Twigg’s pass, the winger rifled in a low shot that hit a post before spinning back over the line.
With a strong breeze behind them, Dundalk were much the better side in the first half with strikers Jason Byrne and Mark Quigley worrying Rovers’ unsure defence.
Quigley brought the save of the half from Alan Mannus with a direct free-kick from 30 yards which the Hoops’ keeper turned round a post at full stretch.
Scarcely in the game up till then, Rovers came within inches of taking an undeserved lead three minutes before the break when Dennehy’s low free-kick came back off the butt of Peter Cherrie’s right-hand post.
Rovers grew in dominance throughout the second half, with Dennehy bouncing a cross off the bar and then drilling wide after good work by substitute Gary McCabe.
Twigg almost marked his return from injury with a goal on 87 minutes, his shot coming back off a post, before setting up Dennehy to score the second.
“We took this competition seriously from the word go,” said Rovers‘ manager Michael O’Neill. “It has knockers, but it’s designed to try bring the two leagues together and try find a champion out of that.
“It’s our chance to say we’ve taken part in the competition and won it at the first time as well. It’s a competition that I think will continue to grow and I don’t think it should be dismissed.”
The defeat was all the harder for Dundalk to take as they also lost both striker Byrne and midfielder Stephen McDonnell to injury. But manager Ian Foster was full of praise for his players.
“What a wonderful group of players I’ve got,” said Foster. “We took the champions to the wire. We started the game with four teenagers and a lot of debutants in a cup final. And what a fantastic learning curve for those players.
“They are heartbroken, they’re in tears. But we’ve come an awful long way and I’m immensely proud of the group.”
DUNDALK: Cherrie; Madden, Hawkins, Hector, Murphy; Kearns, Bolger, McDonnell (Bennett 9), Gaynor (Breen 85); Quigley, Byrne (Ward 59).
SHAMROCK ROVERS: Mannus; Sullivan, Oman, Murray, Stevens; Rice (Twigg 64), McCormack; Sheppard (McCabe 78), Finn, Dennehy; O’Neill.
Referee: Alan Kelly (Cork).