Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Liam Buckley’s gung-ho St Patrick’s Athletic had already lost five games on the road before this one. And, if Limerick FC had taken their chances here, it could so easily have been six.
Buckley only knows one way to play, after all: attack, attack, attack. Tommy Barrett, therefore, knew what to expect. The Limerick manager enacted the perfect gameplan, tailor-made to tarnish the Saints’ halos. Only fatigue and poor finishing — an unwanted hallmark of Limerick’s recent outings — ultimately let him down.
Barrett’s plan was twofold: press them high, and attack the space. Pat’s attacking full-backs Simon Madden and Ian Bermingham were rampant throughout March’s reverse fixture, a 1-0 victory for the Saints. But, here, their receipt of the football provided the trigger for Limerick’s teenage wingers, Will Fitzgerald and Colm Walsh-O’Loghlen, to press and disrupt.
As such, Pat’s usual efforts to play short from goalkeeper Barry Murphy, and build from the back, were largely stymied. Fortunately, however, Pat’s also possessed a handy outlet in striker Jake Keegan, who beat Limerick’s centre-backs to the first ball out of defence all too regularly. The visitors still, therefore, enjoyed lots of first-half possession in the Limerick half.
But that possession proved largely benign, rendered impotent by the speed with which Limerick transitioned into defence. An unpenetrative Pat’s side duly failed to fashion a single chance of note before half-time, as the hosts successfully absorbed pressure and put the second part of Barrett’s plan into practice.
Counterattack was the name of the game, as the likes of Fitzgerald and Walsh-O’Loghlen dutifully scampered into the spaces vacated by Pat’s attack-minded defenders — and central midfielders. Both Brennan brothers, Killian and Ryan, were guilty of playing like number-10s at times, stranding Jamie Lennon in front of his defence.
To illustrate the point, all three Pat’s central midfielders, at one point or another, committed professional fouls to halt fast-breaks. Only Ryan Brennan, bizarrely, escaped Ray Matthews’ yellow card.
Pat’s, too, escaped, as both Walsh-O’Loghlen and Shane Duggan frittered away clear-cut chances before the break. But Barrett’s high-octane gameplan, however appropriate, is hard to maintain for 90 minutes — especially in the teeth of both a fixture crunch and a conditioning crisis.
The wide overloads that so killed Limerick in their last three outings against Pat’s, that Barrett’s plan had so successfully avoided, inevitably began to surface. Madden, the Saints’ prime mover back in March, started to feature prominently again in the final third. The full-back instigated a trio of quick-fire chances, from which Pat’s somehow failed to take the lead.
Tired minds also began to mirror their tired Limerick bodies, as the hosts slipped tragically into individual error mode again. Billy Dennehy’s penalty-area hesitancy was almost punished by a dangerous Conan Byrne cross — were it not for Kilian Cantwell’s timely back-post intervention.
But the winger-by-trade did not heed the covering lesson handed down by his more naturally defence-minded colleague. Just minutes later, Dennehy was not in a position to salvage Killian Brouder’s inexplicable decision to sell himself on the edge of the box, allowing Ryan Brennan to dance past the 19-year-old and bag the winner.
Barrett threw on Mark O’Sullivan, moving to a more open 4-4-2, and Pat’s could have added another on the break through substitute Darragh Markey. But that would have added undue gloss to an already somewhat unreflective scoreline.
The Saints diced with death here, evincing an unbalanced openness that Limerick should have punished. In that respect, Buckley has centre-back Kevin Toner to thank for covering a multitude.
Ever-present in 2018, like his goalkeeper and the rest of the Pat’s back-four, the 21-year-old has added much-needed steel to the Inchicore rearguard. Toner, an ex-Irish underage international, produced countless crucial blocks, interceptions and clearances to bail out the attack-minded trio beside him.
Lee Desmond’s tendency to carry the ball out of defence is a huge boon to Pat’s game. But they need a brawler like Toner beside the cultured 23-year-old, to complement his talents. Now they have it, and a proper number six in Lennon, too.
That’s why Pat’s defence, much improved, has kept eight clean sheets already in 2018, despite the structural chaos Buckley’s gung-ho strategy engenders. Limerick, on the other hand, simply do not possess individual defenders of Toner’s quality. Nor do they possess attackers capable of regularly taking the kind of chances they created here. Barrett remains a victim of his 11th-hour hiring, that so limited his transfer market options.
To illustrate the point, Limerick mainly chased an equaliser here down Pat’s left, through an out-an-out defender in Cantwell, and a one-start 18-year-old in Karl O’Sullivan. Goalless Mark O’Sullivan — never a prolific finisher — and Danny Morrissey — clever, but struggling for fitness — awaited in the Saints box.
At centre-back, a slight central midfielder in Eoin Wearen failed to get out quickly enough to Christy Fagan, who duly turned and assisted Brennan’s winner. With Darren Dennehy injured again, Barrett felt that pairing Wearen with a novice in Brouder was his best bet. This is not the kind of problem Buckley has to think about. But, after securing only one win from Limerick’s last 13 league games, it’s the least of Barrett’s.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112