With European exploits both in the rear view mirror and on the horizon, Shamrock Rovers reasserted their grip on top spot in the Premier Division with a hard fought win over Drogheda United.
Aaron Greene's close range goal early in the second half sealed a eighth straight win in all competitions for Stephen Bradley’s team. A heavily-rotated line-up produced an excellent warm up for the midweek trip to Tallinn.
The hosts came into the game in the second half but didn’t test Alan Mannus at all and have now won just once in ten outings.
The defending champions again go three points clear of St Patrick’s Athletic, with a game in hand to come.
Rovers made six changes from their Europa Conference League victory on Thursday evening. The three Seans – Gannon, Hoare and Kavanagh – came in while two-goal hero in midweek Rory Gaffney was among those left out. Graham Burke returned, as did Chris McCann.
Drogheda manager Tim Clancy handed a debut to new signing Joe Redmond at centre back while he also granted a first league start of the season to James Clarke. Jordan Adeyemo also came in as Mark Doyle, Darragh Markey and Dinny Corcoran were held in reserve.
The manager, who watched from the stands as he serves a three-match touchline ban, employed a similar tactic in Tallaght in June when he left top scorers Doyle and Chris Lyons on the bench. A credible 1-1 draw for United proved him right on that occasion.
While Drogheda have struggled in recent weeks – Clancy believes his side are not immune from being dragged into a relegation battle – no Rovers player arrived at Head In The Game Park having scored more than Drogheda’s two main goal threats Lyons and Doyle.
Without that duo from the start, the attacking onus fell on Adeyemo but it was mostly a rearguard action in the first half as Rovers controlled the game. There was no European hangover evident. On the contrary, the visitors looked emboldened by their progression in continental competition.
Burke forced David Odumuso to tip a shot onto the post inside three minutes. Aaron Greene and Richie Towell also had efforts on goal before Daniel O’Reilly and Redmond blocked efforts from in-form Liam Scales and Burke respectively.
The latter was a brilliant volley at the back post from a Rovers corner. Burke would be the next man to test the United goalkeeper while McCann saw a shot whistle wide of the top corner after a loose ball out of defence from Dane Massey.
The visitors had a complete monopoly on the ball. Drogheda’s first shot of any description came shortly before the break. The flag would have denied Adeyemo in any case.
It was almost exactly three years to the day since Drogheda beat Rovers on home soil in an FAI Cup fixture. But just avoiding becoming the latest team to fall to a late, late Shamrock Rovers winner might have been suffice enough.
When Stephen Bradley’s team last visited Head In The Game Park, Danny Mandriou’s 95th winner broke home hearts. They haven’t been the only team to suffer that fate this year and it is no leap of faith to think there will be more to come.
As it happened, Rovers’ winning goal arrived much earlier. Nine second half minutes had elapsed when Burke delivered a low cross from the left which was tapped in by the unmarked Greene at the far post. United had been completely undone by an altogether simple goal.
The home side’s changes did pre-empt their best spell of the game. Doyle volleyed over and then Jake Hyland’s header was cleared off the line but Rovers saw the game out reasonably comfortably.
Drogheda United: David Odumosu; Joe Remond (Ronan Murray, 64), Daniel O’Reilly, Dane Massey (Dinny Corcoran, 80); James Brown, Gary Deegan (Luke Heeney, 80), Jake Hyland, Killian Phillips, Conor Kane; James Clarke (Darragh Markey, 56); Jordan Adeyemo (Mark Doyle, 56).
Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Sean Hoare, Roberto Lopes, Liam Scales; Sean Gannon, Richie Towell (Gary O’Neill 77), Chris McCann, Sean Kavanagh; Danny Mandriou (Rory Gaffney, 70), Graham Burke (Dylan Watts, 68), Aaron Greene.
Referee: Ray Matthews (Westmeath)