The Captain’s Run

Published in Hoops Scene (Shamrock Rovers v Drogheda United, May 2011)

Last Saturday, Shamrock Rovers secured their first trophy of the season winning the Setanta Sports Cup. Rovers have been in great form in this competition, winning all five of their games and scoring 13 goals in the process. In this feast of football, Rovers were the last man standing in this competition becoming All-Ireland Champions. It has certainly whetted the appetite for winning more trophies here in Tallaght Stadium.

On a day of cup finals, it was Dan Murray as captain of Shamrock Rovers who got to climb the steps to lift the trophy for the cup winners. After the chaotic scenes when Rovers last won a trophy, when the Hoops won the league title out in Bray, Murray was delighted to get his hands on a trophy in Rovers’ Tallaght home. “It was great to win the first cup of the season and especially to win it here in Tallaght. It made it even more special for everyone. I thought the presentation was well done; it was probably the closest we will get to going up the Wembley steps! It was nicely done that we got the trophy one side of the pitch and then we could go to the other side to celebrate with our fans. It was good for all the lads to celebrate together. That’s the best thing about it, to celebrate winning things and to do it as a team.”

The celebrations after the win over Dundalk were the usual cup final mix of dancing, singing and champagne spilling with the players even lifting manager Michael O’Neill up on their shoulders in front of the delighted Rovers fans packed into Tallaght’s East Stand. It was all a marked contrast with Rovers’ last cup final appearance, which took place in November at Lansdowne Road in the FAI Cup final. The defeat that day to Sligo Rovers, via the lottery of penalty kicks, was an incentive for Shamrock Rovers to win on their debut in the Setanta Sports Cup. The win made it their seventh All Ireland cup win having won the competition in its previous guises as the Tyler, Blaxnit and Inter City All Ireland Cups. “After last season losing the FAI Cup final, it was especially nice to win a cup final. It is not a nice feeling coming off the pitch after losing and nobody would have wanted penalties at that car park end of the stadium! It gives a buzz about the place that you’ve actually won a cup that the club hasn’t won before so it is a great way to start the season.”

The away team on cup final day was actually Shamrock Rovers and they togged out in their new black away kit from the away dressing room. However, the setup was as normal as possible and there was even a Shamrock Rovers Milltown sign put up to cover up the ‘away team’ notice on their dressing room door. Murray outlined how Rovers’ Kitman Gerry Byrne “did a great job. He set up the changing room in exactly the same way as the home one. We were all sitting in our normal places. We just got on with it. It was great that the final was in Tallaght as there was a great buzz about the stadium before and after the game.”

During the game, the Hoops hit the woodwork three times through Billy Dennehy twice and second half substitute Gary Twigg who was returning from injury. Second half goals from Gary O’Neill and Billy Dennehy were the difference on day. “We had a lot of chances,” said Murray. “If we had won by four I don’t think anyone would have complained about it. We played very well in the whole game and created the best chances out of the two teams.”

Crucial to this win, and to Rovers’ performances that see them sit on top of the league table, has been the defensive display by the Hoops. Key to this has been the centre half partnership that has developed between the Rovers captain and one of this season’s new signings Ken Oman. “We all knew that Ken was a quality player from when he was at Bohs the last few seasons. We were fortunate to get him from Sporting Fingal especially with Craig Sives being injured. We have developed a good back four. Then with Alan [Mannus] in goal, it makes it a back five and we’ve played really well this season. The more games Ken and me play together as a partnership the better we will get. You get to know each other’s games and we complement each other really well.” It was a fresh look for Ken Oman who had got a fairly radical cup final haircut for the occasion. Gone were his flowing locks that had inspired the terrace chant about him looking like Jesus Christ. “A few people didn’t recognise him with the haircut,” joked Murray. “It is a lot different for us in the changing room with all the long hair gone.”

Murray picked up a series knee injury in the latter part of last season and his injury coincided with a dip in Rovers’ results. He was on the sidelines during this difficult period and couldn’t help the Hoops on the pitch in the title run in. “I’m not a great watcher of my team to be honest. It was hard not being involved. I missed the best part of last season with the last quarter when all the big games are. I missed the Cup final and that was disappointing. We were playing so well but obviously as we got closer and closer to the final hurdle we weren’t getting the results we wanted to get. It really put that bit of pressure on everyone. There was so much expectation from the fans and ourselves really that it was pretty difficult to get a result anywhere at the time. We fell over the line. The first trophy is the hardest one to win and we definitely made hard work of it over the last month of the season.”

Having missed out on playing in that crucial last quarter, Murray worked hard during his injury rehabilitation with a view to getting back as soon as possible. “The injury was a pretty serious one and I needed a cruciate knee ligament operation. As soon as I had the operation, I had the goal of being back for the start of this season, which I managed to do. Thankfully the knee is feeling as good as it did before I had the injury. Pat Sullivan had done the same thing just before me so we had a guideline from him on how quickly I could come back and I just followed what he had done. The physio work was pretty hard in the off-season and coming into pre-season. Fortunately I was fit enough to get back in the team for that first game of the season which was my goal when I had the injury. It is just nice to be back playing again. I’m delighted to be playing football, being able to train and play every day, and the knee seems good.”

It has been a regular back four this season in front of Alan Mannus with both Murray and Pat Sullivan returning from injury, new signing Ken Oman and Enda Stevens along with Pat Flynn coming in when required. This stability has given Rovers 10 clean sheets in the 18 competitive matches played to date. “If you can keep as many clean sheets as we can, with the quality we have got in the attacking part of the pitch, we are always going to give ourselves a good chance of winning,” said Murray. “Fortnightly we’ve had a good few clean sheets this year and long may it continue. If we can keep getting the clean sheets, there is no doubt we will keep scoring goals because there is a lot of goals in our team.”

A number of those goals have come in midfield from Gary McCabe and Ronan Finn. It was Finn’s probing run that set up the opening goal for the Hoops in the Setanta final which was converted by Gary O’Neill. That was just part of a fine all round display which landed Finn the man of the match award to go along with his Setanta Sports Cup winner’s medal. “He has been great for us all season,” said Finn’s captain. “He has settled in really well. His running with the ball is one of his great strengths and that’s something we’ve probably added to the team from last year in the middle of the pitch. He creates a lot for other players. He is going to score a good few goals. He has fitted in really well and he has probably been our best player so far this season.”

Alongside Finn and Stephen Rice in the midfield three, was another new signing, Conor McCormack who only turned 21 during the week. McCormack put in a fine display in the final against the team from his hometown of Dundalk. “Wherever you put him on a football pitch he will do a job for you,” said Murray. “At the minute he is playing centre midfield and he is doing a great job. As soon as he came in during pre-season everyone could tell he was a quality player. Some of the trialists you get, you think no, they are no good but as soon as he came in you could see he played. He knows the game really well and is another player who fitted really quickly into the team. It is going to be hard to get him out of team with him playing so well.”

The first third of the season is now complete with Rovers sitting on top of the league, a new trophy to go in the brand new trophy room in the stadium and have a third round tie in the FAI Cup at home to come in early June. It is a nice position to be in for the club and Murray hopes the Hoops will continue to keep winning their games whatever the competition. “The four big trophies in the country are the league, FAI Cup, Setanta Cup and League Cup. At the start of the season we had eyes on competing in every single tournament. We won’t take anything lightly. Unfortunately we went out of the league cup. But when we were in the Setanta Cup in every round we wanted to get through, get to the final and win the trophy, the first one of season. It important to get the momentum of winning things. We want to keep winning every game we are playing whether it is a league game or a cup game, to keep that momentum going.”

All photos from George Kelly

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