Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
On a night of sweet vindication for Neil McDonald, Limerick FC defeated champions-elect Cork City to pull five points clear of the relegation zone.
McDonald and Cotter
With no tactical or personnel changes effected by McDonald, after last week’s draw away to Bray Wanderers, the Englishman’s ever-impressive man-management instead came under the microscope.
Bravely keeping faith with 18-year-old Barry Cotter, after a near-catastrophic performance against the Seagulls, guarded against confidence erosion. But a first-half in which John Caulfield’s side ruthlessly trained their attacking sights on the teenager forced McDonald’s half-time hand.
Aided by Shane Griffin’s supporting runs, Kieran Sadlier roasted Cotter to create a series of chances, and win several corner-kicks. Cotter also hesitated under a late first-half high-ball, forcing a quick-acting Brendan Clarke to thwart Sadlier from point-blank range.
That was almost a picture-perfect rerun of the chance Bray’s Jason Marks wasted seven days prior. And, on that basis, Cotter’s half-time removal from the firing-line, in favour of a Dean Clarke with a point to prove, was the correct decision. Sadlier’s influence waned in the second-half, as Cork instead turned their attentions to Limerick’s left-hand side.
McDonald and Williams
Of course, it was Limerick’s 7th-minute opener that best highlighted the wisdom of McDonald’s squad-management shouts. July’s decision to jettison first-teamers Robbie Williams, Shaun Kelly, and Paul O’Conor, generated derision that has yet to abate in some quarters.
Caulfield was kind enough to take Williams off the Englishman’s hands. And, although one might struggle to find evidence on the sundry available Limerick FC-related Twitter feeds, it was Williams’ pratfall that unlocked the door for Rodrigo Tosi’s delectable chip.
Mimicking the goal that the then-Limerick-registered 32-year-old gifted Sean Maguire in Turner’s Cross served as a timely reminder that McDonald may have been on the money. A sluggish Williams struggled throughout in a right-sided-centre-back role to which he looked ill-accustomed.
And, ludicrously bedecked in the captain’s armband, in Greg Bolger’s wake, he became the fourth Cork player to get booked for hacking at an unplayable Chiedozie Ogbene.
Cork’s collective failure to handle Ogbene’s pacy running also led to Limerick’s second goal, of course. Bolger hacked his former teammate down in a left-of-centre area, allowing Shane Tracy to cap his third league start of 2017 with a trademark direct free-kick.
McDonald, Crowe, and Tracy
McDonald’s appropriate handling of loanee Joe Crowe ushered Tracy back into the team two weeks ago, allowing David O’Connor to continue an excellent run-of-form in his natural position.
The 26-year-old’s much-maligned run at left-back, throughout which he was unfairly subject to some outrageous criticism — and, indeed, abuse — turned Tracy into Roberto Carlos in the minds of some of O’Connor’s detractors.
Tracy himself knows that his pace deficit makes him a risk at full-back, however. The recently-turned 29-year-old compensates for this by sticking tight to his central defender; which, of course, gave Stephen Dooley all the time in the world to stand up the back-post cross that saw Sadlier halve Cork’s deficit.
Caulfield’s own half-time change, replacing a booked Steven Beattie with a rested Garry Buckley, pushed Tracy further into the mire. Beattie’s removal, prompted by Ogbene’s pre-eminence, saw Keohane switched to right-back, encouraging Dooley to interpret his role in a more inside-right manner.
This created the same overload that Tracy also fell victim to late on away to Galway. Cork’s right-wing crosses created a string of second-half chances, forcing Clarkes, Dean and Brendan, into key blocks to deny Buckley and Sadlier.
Shane Duggan’s languidity, to Bastien Hery’s left, didn’t help Tracy either, as Dooley found the space to thread two tempting through-balls from the Limerick captain’s zone. Sheppard, an insufficient Maguire understudy, hit the side-netting with one, and was foiled by Clarke from the other.
Confirmation bias tempts some Limerick fans into using Tracy’s supposedly belated introduction to the side as a stick to beat McDonald. But the truth is that the sturdy defensive shape that the Englishman has engendered was always apparent; Tracy, for all his positive attributes, does not necessarily make it any stronger.
McDonald, Hery, and Brendan Clarke
Nor does his aforementioned captain, or the number-10-by-trade Lee J. Lynch, for that matter. Huge credit must go to Hery, not just for quickly adapting to a lone-holding role in which he looked somewhat swamped at Bray, but for getting through the workload of three men.
Copious tackles, interceptions, and ball recoveries were on show from the Frenchman, as per usual, to get Limerick over the line.
Meanwhile, Cork’s dominance of wide areas, up against Cotter in the first-half, and Tracy in the second, gave Brendan Clarke another chance to answer his own detractors.
Fresh from saving a third 2017 penalty-kick in Bray, Clarke claimed, and punched, most of the whopping 16-strong corner-count that Cork sent his way.
The former St Pat’s ‘keeper was also, again, quick off his line to pull off some vital one-on-one saves. Alas, no matter what Clarke does, the FOF (Friends of Freddy) may never see his virtues. Fortunately, McDonald very much does.
Caulfield and Cork
And, what of Caulfield, whose charges’ lead at the top is now cut to 11 points ahead of Dundalk’s Monday visit? Resting the likes of Buckley, Conor McCormack, and Alan Bennett was a risk that did not pay off here. The latter pair’s replacements, Bolger and Williams, committed the early errors that killed the Leesiders off.
Caulfield’s attempts to retrieve the situation also left a lot to be desired. The 88th-minute arrival of Achille Campion’s aerial presence appeared particularly belated, given how many crosses Cork were pumping into the Limerick area.
Promising young striker Connor Ellis was introduced earlier in the 70th-minute, but with Limerick sinking ever-deeper, there was little opportunity for the mobile 20-year-old to play his natural game. Horses for courses, and all that.
And, to continue that particular sporting metaphor, this 2017 season may have itself a race to the title finishing post yet. For a vindicated McDonald, now five points clear of the drop, next Friday’s FAI Cup renewal of Munster hostilities represents a welcome free-hit.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112
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