UP in Sligo, they might well remember this cup triumph as the four-in-a-row – the four Shamrock Rovers penalties which ‘keeper Ciaran Kelly saved in a dramatic shoot-out to scupper the Hoops’ dream of a league and cup double, more than making up for Sligo’s pain in losing the FAI Ford Cup final this time 12 months ago in the process.
They say that penalties are a cruel way to settle any game but at the Aviva Stadium justice was ultimately served as the best team on the day emerged triumphant from the spot-kick head-to-head.
Shamrock Rovers still have the consolation of ending the year as league champions, although it will take Gary Twigg, Pat Flynn, Chris Turner and Paddy Kavanagh – all of whom were thwarted by the heroic Kelly – some time to get over the disappointment of failing with, literally, their final kicks of the season.
Former Shamrock Rovers man Eoin Doyle and the impressive Gary McCabe found the mark for Sligo and, with Kelly doing the rest between the posts, that was enough to send the cup to the Showgrounds after 120 minutes of absorbing, if not exactly electrifying football had failed to separate the two sides on the scoreboard.
The game might not have been the classic the occasion demanded, but the incredible drama of the conclusion certainly ensured that no one in a massive Cup final crowd of 36,101 left feeling short-changed on a day when the domestic game took centre stage.
While the two tribes gathered in all their pomp and glory, the rival managers were still plotting ways to win the FAI Cup Final. In the absence of the suspended Matthew Blinkhorn and players’ player of the year Richie Ryan, Danny Ventre stepped into midfield for Sligo while Eoin Doyle was asked to carry the attacking threat upfront.
The good news for Hoops supporters before kick-off was that striker Gary Twigg passed a late fitness test though, in the absence of Aidan Price – who had been expected to be fit enough to play – a reshuffle saw Stephen Rice slot in at right-back with Pat Flynn and Craig Sives in the centre of defence.
That also meant a change in the middle of the park for the Dubliners where Chris Turner and Stephen Bradley took up position while Thomas Stewart partnered Twigg in a 4-4-2 formation upfront.
There were half chances at either end in the opening stages, the best created for himself by Twigg when he spun just outside the box and rifled a shot over Kelly’s crossbar.
By comparison with the Shamrock Rovers front two, Eoin Doyle initially cut an isolated figure as the spearhead of the Sligo attack but it was his good work in holding up the ball that led to a corner in the 16th minutes from which Romauld Boco came closest to breaking the deadlock as, afforded the freedom of the box by slack Hoops defending, the Benin international saw his powerful header crash off the crossbar.
That was the signal for Sligo to take control of the game, with Boco, well supported by the overlapping Alan Keane, using his pace to good effect down the right. At the same time, Gary McCabe was impressive on the opposite flank, while the ageless Joseph Ndo began to show all his class with a sequence of raking passes and deep crosses which kept the Rovers defence, in which Craig Sives was obliged to make some crunching challenges, very much on its toes.
Yet, for all that they were now playing the kind of expansive football for which Paul Cook’s side has become renowned, the closest the Sligo came to converting pressure into the breakthrough goal was from a set-piece just three minutes before the break, as Gavin Peers got above Pat Flynn to direct another well-flighted Ndo corner just the wrong side of the foot of Alan Mannus’ goal.
It was more of the same in the second period with Sligo again dominating possession and a typically sweeping move in the 57th minute ended with Gary McCabe’s effort rising just over the top of Alan Mannus’ goal.
It was clear by now that while the Bit O’ Red were making light of the absence of Richie Ryan, they were definitely missing Blinkhorn’s eye for a goal. The more they failed to find the finishing touch to some sparkling moves or, as often happened, found someone like Pat Flynn or Craig Sives prepared to take blows and shed blood in the Hoops’ cause, the more you felt that their entire effort might yet come to nought.
And it almost did in the closing moments of normal time as Gavin Peers and then Alan Keane were forced to clear their lines with Ciaran Kelly beaten, before the ‘keeper himself made two great saves in succession to deny Billy Dennehy and Gary Twigg.
As both goals remained intact, the match moved into extra time with growing fatigue, falling concentration levels and the dangers of an error on a slippery surface now increasingly significant factors. There were few clear-cut chances as the pace of game dropped and incidents of cramp arose and, try as they could, Sligo could not settle it in 120 minutes even though Rovers were reduced to 10 men following the sending off of Stephen Bradley for what was as much a tired as a reckless tackle on the relentless Alan Keane.
And so the contest came down to penalties at the Sligo end of the ground, which meant the north-west faithful were ideally placed to see Kelly stop everything the Hoops could throw at him. His final save, from Paddy Kavanagh, signalled the start of celebrations which are likely to continue in Sligo for some time.
SLIGO ROVERS: Kelly 10, Keane 9, Peers 8, Lauchlan 8, Davoran 8, Boco 9, Ventre 8(O’ Grady 116), Ndo 9, Russell 8, McCabe 8, Doyle 8.
SHAMROCK ROVERS: Mannus 6, Rice 6, Flynn 6, Sives 7, Stephens 6, Dennehy 6, Turner 6, Bradley 6, Chambers 6, (Baker 68, Price 112), Stewart 6(Kavanagh 102), Twigg 6.
Referee: Tomás Connolly.
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