Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
If banishing the ghosts of Oriel Park was foremost in Tommy Barrett’s mind, Bray Wanderers represented the perfect foil. As passive as Dundalk were aggressive, as profligate as the Lilywhites were clinical, Dave Mackey’s basement boys gifted Limerick a morale-boosting victory.
Sick as parrots after shipping eight goals in Louth, Limerick’s psychological ailments manifested in the form of a virus in the lead-up to this one. League of Ireland stalwarts Billy Dennehy and Mark O’Sullivan, both absent from the 18, were apparently the worst affected.
O’Sullivan’s absence, in particular, represented a huge boon to Mackey’s chances here. Simple long balls bamboozled his centre-backs, Hugh Douglas and Sean Heaney, throughout defeats to St Pat’s and Shamrock Rovers. Without a target man in harness, Limerick’s usual direct approach was unlikely to inflict similar damage.
Pass, pass, pass
Indeed, without O’Sullivan, Barrett felt compelled to utilise an entirely different style of play. From the off, Limerick employed a patient — some would say ponderous — passing game, prioritising possession retention over all else.
Pity poor Connor Ellis, who sorely lacked the service to match his always impressive movement into the channels. And, given the ample space offered by Bray’s surprisingly high defensive line, Limerick’s reluctance to play passes in behind looked even more odd.
Perhaps Mackey planned this ploy with a view to keeping O’Sullivan as far away from goal as possible. In the event, it was just as effective at preventing his hosts from threading the eye of a needle.
With both Aaron Greene and Gary McCabe dropping back, happy to let Limerick’s defence have the ball, Bray proved extremely compact from back-to-front. Limerick, in the first-half at least, could find no way through.
Only teenage sensation Will Fitzgerald, deputising for the elder Dennehy, hinted at any green shoots, running at midfielder-by-trade Dan McKenna with continual menace.
Limerick, almost as keen to minimise risk as their visitors, did not feed him enough either. Which, given the teenaged McKenna’s struggles throughout the opening three games, was criminal.
Hamstrung as a counter-attacking force by their caution, Bray finally began to commit numbers forward after the break. Left-back Kevin Lynch, once an amateur soccer standout with Sheriff YC, began to probe dangerously into the Limerick half.
Several decent deliveries followed, and quite how Paul O’Conor failed to turn one in from point-blank range is anyone’s guess.
That was a huge let-off for Barrett’s side, but the Seagulls were starting to live a charmed life too. Spared O’Sullivan’s hulking presence, Bray’s newfound openness exposed their other glaring 2018 deficiency — a pair of positionally unsound central midfielders.
O’Conor, partnered with either John Sullivan or Darragh Noone, presides over an engine-room that cannot track runners or pocket the second-ball.
No surprise then when the likes of Shane Duggan and Daniel Kearns began to pop up free between the lines. A Kearns through-ball, to Ellis, could have seen Douglas dismissed for a last-ditch foul on the tricky striker.
Perhaps McKenna, all at sea at full-back, would do a better job for Mackey in his natural position. Indeed, many Bray observers expected Conor Kenna’s welcome return to coincide with Douglas reassuming right-back duties. Instead, Mackey dropped Heaney, and McKenna remained in the firing-line.
And, fatefully, a weak defensive header from the 18-year-old teed up Danny Morrissey’s late winner. Kearns, swapped with Fitzgerald just moments earlier, claimed the second-ball. Shane Tracy’s wonderful deep cross laid it on a plate for the substitute.
Bray were forced to reflect on both O’Conor’s miss, and a one-on-one Brendan Clarke won with Greene. Greene wasted a similar counter-attacking chance in the latter stages of Bray’s goalless draw with Dundalk. The 28-year-old’s clutch finishing will have to improve if the Seagulls are to stand any chance of survival.
Mackey, too, deserves further flak for the manner in which he used his bench. The first replacement, Daniel Kelly, arrived in the 80th minute. Ronan Coughlan, who set up Greene’s chance and helped McKenna so effectively, was the man called ashore. Kelly was nowhere to be seen when Tracy swung in his killer assist.
Handing 85 minutes of rope to the desperately ineffectual Cory Galvin, playing his first top-level season at 22, made little sense either. The winger struggled to get into Cabinteely’s side last year, underlining how limited the options at Mackey’s disposal really are.
A relatively comfortable night, then, for Shaun Kelly, who endured a personal nightmare up against Michael Duffy last time out. This truly was the calm after the snowstorm for Limerick, a game in which all the players brutally exposed by the Lilywhites were let off the hook, and allowed to recover their confidence.
Tracy, who showed Pat Hoban inside for Dundalk’s third before being continually singed by Dylan Connolly, found time to let his technique shine in opposition territory.
Eoin Wearen, a positional disaster for each of the first three Dundalk goals, swaggered on the ball under no pressure. Duggan, returned to a role with less defensive responsibility, looked more of a busy asset than a headless liability.
The perfect game, then, for Barrett and his ailing charges to restore some pride. Monday’s trip to Kenny Shiels’ stricken Candystripes is up next. But the visit of Cork City, next Friday, will throw the same players who flopped so dramatically in Louth right back out of their comfort zones.
The compactness Bray demonstrated here was beyond Limerick a fortnight ago. Barrett better get working on that low-block; the champions won’t be so forgiving.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112