The 2020 League of Ireland season will be remembered as the 18-game Covid campaign, yet Shamrock Rovers needed just five matches to prove they were the best team in the land.
Way back at the start of the year when the word Corona would evoke either a Mexican beer with an acquired taste or Danny O'Reilly’s dulcet tones, the Hoops began their campaign with victory over arch-rivals, Bohemians.
A horrible day in February when the weather was so bad that it was deemed dangerous to allow camera folk to work the not-so-sturdy Dalymount gantry, yet the match went ahead, and Rovers snatched it in the last minute thanks to a poached Aaron Greene effort, which followed a fumble on the greasy surface.
Little did Stephen Bradley’s side know at the time that the match against the ever-improving Keith Long outfit would be the toughest that they would face all season – on the pitch at least.
Rovers followed up that win with a 6-0 mauling of Cork City, in a game where Graham Burke bagged five and the visitors looked like Rebels without a cause – and so it proved.
A perfect performance perhaps, but Rovers had laid down a marker to outgoing champions, Dundalk, who had also opened their campaign with two from two, albeit, winning both close encounters by a single goal against Derry and Shelbourne.
Three days later, and four minutes in, Rovers were already ahead down at the difficult RSC – the game was more or less wrapped up after 20 minutes with the Hoops 2-0 ahead and the home side down to ten.
However, Dundalk were also starting to hit their straps, and put three past Cork City on the same night.
On 28 February, the champions came to Tallaght and while, in hindsight, that may have been the moment that the baton was passed from past to future, on the night, it appeared that the two teams would go on to contest the title.
A five-goal thriller between @ShamrockRovers and @DundalkFC in Tallaght as the Hoops moved clear at the top of the table - including that @JordanFlores199 screamer & a @jackb_8 belter. pic.twitter.com/j9SSzGs50d— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) February 29, 2020
"Fine margins" decide games; that was the verdict of the then Dundalk manager Vinny Perth, and it was a moment of magic from Jack Byrne that proved the difference in the five-goal thriller, with the Hoops coming out on top, winning 3-2.
Sligo away followed for Bradley’s side, and while the result mirrored that of the Dundalk game, the gulf between the two teams was striking as the Hoops showed that they were pulling clear against teams that were able to negate their threat in recent seasons.
Five from five, it couldn’t have gone any better for Rovers, but that was the last we would see of this exciting side playing to their potential, as the coronavirus called a halt to the 2020 season, and for a while it looked like it would never return.
With only five games completed, there was no way that Rovers would be handed the title had the season been scraped, but thankfully for the Dublin club, an array of factors allowed the season to return, thanks to mediation, players accepting pay cuts, FAI and government intervention as well as the obligations to finish the season in order to remain in European competition.
That battle of the Rovers on Saturday, 7 March was the last match played until the league finally returned on 31 July, and for those five-odd months of inaction, there was an opposite yet unequal reaction for the two leading sides in the country.
It became evident within two games of the re-start that there most certainly was a changing of the guard as Dundalk gained one solitary point from their two games, while Rovers added six more points to make it seven on the trot.
And if one game summed up the quality and desire of this Rovers team, it happened up at the Ryan McBride Brandywell when Bradley’s side found themselves trailing 1-0 approaching the 80-minute mark.
Two goals in four minutes turned that game and the result on its head, as Rovers enjoyed a 2-1 victory with Alan Mannus making a fine save at the death to secure the points.
The other thing to emerge that week was that Rovers’ main challengers for the title would now come from a bit closer to home; Bohemians had won three in a row after the re-start.
As mid-season wobbles go, Shamrock Rovers’ two consecutive drawn games barely registered on the Richter scale, however, a seismic shift loomed large as the Dublin derby approached with the Gypsies within striking distance, following a fourth win in succession, beating St Pat’s 2-0.
While Rovers scored late to take the points in the first derby, they managed to get their noses in front after five minutes of this one and proceeded to hold on for the remaining 85, just doing enough to see the game out in one of their least impressive performances of the season.
Method to the manager’s madness perhaps as the game lacked the fire and vitriol that often accompanies the meeting of Dublin’s big two and the Rovers tactics could be chalked down as a professional performance to secure the three points.
More importantly, the gap was now five points and one week later, it was all over bar the shouting as Bohs lost at home to Waterford, while the Hoops went to Cork and demolished the home threat at Turner’s Cross, winning 3-0 to move eight points clear.
Seven games remained, and if there was any doubt as to who was the best team in the league, with all the talk of 2020 being the asterisk season, the Hoops went into procession mode as they scored 14 goals in their next three games against Waterford, Dundalk and Sligo Rovers.
On 2 October, Rovers led the campaign by 11 points; they have yet to kick a ball since.
Instead they were crowned champions on Saturday night as Bohemians’ plucky challenge finally petered out, losing 2-0 at home to Finn Harps.
With four games remaining, the only thing left for Rovers to do is to make it an unbeaten season, and while the title is secured, the Hoops can still play a role in how the rest of the table transpires.
"We want to go and win [every game]," said Stephen Bradley, speaking to RTÉ Sport on Tuesday.
"We want to go unbeaten, that was one of our targets and that remains in place. We’ll approach every game, with hunger and desire to go and get three points."
Just about one year has passed since Bradley landed his first major silverware as Rovers manager, as his side banished their FAI Cup hoodoo, winning for the first time in 32 years.
It’s only nine years since Rovers last won the league title, but with so much happening at the club since Michael O’Neill landed back-to-back titles in 2010 and 2011, most notably in recent years with the emergence of the Shamrock Rovers Academy and significant outside investment in the club, the fans are unlikely to be waiting as long for the next one.
"This is what you work for, to win leagues. I’m delighted, but it’s only the start for this group," added Bradley, with his mind already firmly focused on the 2021 campaign.
So as the 2020 season draws to a close, there will always be a Covid-19 connection to the campaign that lasted just 18 games, however, Rovers will be quick to remind that they had it sewn up after 14.