Heaven 17

When the alarm eventually roused me from sleep on Wednesday morning, the first thing I felt was still very tired but I quite quickly remembered the reason for the late night the previous evening. We’d only gone and bloody done it, Shamrock Rovers had won the league, picking up our 17th title! We were still champions and will be in the Champions League qualifiers next July.

Typical Rovers though – we did it the hard way! Can you believe the story of a 94-minute winner from a substitute playing his first game since August scoring his first league goal of the season to wrap up the league? You couldn’t make it up!

It had looked like we were going to have to wait till Friday in our final league game to see if we could clinch the title. That would have meant a nervy build up to the last game but two pitch invasions later and we weren’t worrying about that. Flooding, fixture congestion or the flashing of yellow and red cards won’t now prevent us on Friday from getting our hands on the trophy.

The 24-hour postponement due to the rain deluge on Monday allowed our players get an extra days rest. A quiet night in maybe for them or a quiet trip to the cinema? That may have been the plan after Monday’s game had been postponed but as it turned out Dundrum Shopping Centre was not the ideal replacement venue for some of the squad who got caught up, and one player lying down, in the floods!

2,552 fans made it to the UCD bowl on Tuesday night and probably 2,500 were Rovers fans and they packed the stand spreading out around the pitch. The stand was full 45 minutes ahead of kick-off. UCD, who had conceded 23 goals in the five encounters with the Hoops so far this season, were determined to ‘rain’ on our parade. Both sides had chances in the first halt but it remained 0-0 at half time.

Referee Neil Doyle produced a soft second yellow card for Craig Sives early in the second half leading to an early bath for the Scotsman leaving Rovers to try and get the required win with only 10 men. Manager Michael O’Neill brought on Ken Oman for only his second game since July due to injury and it was the substitute who opened the scoring with a classic run and header from an in-swinging corner. Game over or so we thought but a lapse in concentration allowed UCD to equalise just two minutes later from a corner of their own to set up a nervous ending.

With 10 minutes remaining, O’Neill threw on Dean Kelly for his first game since early August. The player has been suffering from a nasty injury called Gilmore’s Groin and had yet to score in the league this season. He had come as close to scoring as possible in the derby against Bohs but Gary Twigg had won the argument over which of them got the last touch for winner that night! It couldn’t have been scripted any better then when, with the four minutes of injury time just up, Kelly pounced to tap home the winner from a deflected Stephen O’Donnell shot.

Photo by George Kelly

Cue a massive pitch invasion including fans and players from off the bench. Even Richard Brush joined in – sprinting from his goal over to the far corner to join in the mayhem. There was still time to UCD to threaten the Rovers goal but the defence stood firm. There were amazing scenes at the end with the players slowly making they way off the pitch to hugs, kisses and back slaps from the fans. They eventually gathered along the steps between the pitch and the dressing room to celebrate as a squad together and with the fans.

The stadium took an age to empty as fans drifted off with smiles on their faces and pride in their hearts with their team having collected back-to-back league titles. Before I left I grabbed myself a souvenir of the pitch as old habits die-hard for me. A small piece of Belfield turf is planted in the front of my house beside the bit from the Carlisle Grounds I brought home from last season’s title win. I won’t be on the pitch on Friday in Tallaght as, with a Europa League game to come just six days later, the pitch will need all the protection it can get following the recent rain.

On my way to Ranelagh where we were meeting friends to celebrate the win, I took a detour down the Milltown Road. There, someone had already beaten me to it and had wrapped a scarf around the monument that stands outside our old home of Glenmalure Park. It was in Milltown that we won four in a row but now we are making new history in Tallaght where we can now say we have won two in row. It is an amazing time to be a Rovers fans. The highs we are currently experiencing are made even better due to the comparison with the perilous low moments. It does mean we are going to enjoy everything that is coming our way at the moment and long may it continue.

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