Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Both Sligo Rovers and Limerick FC are scoring at a rate of less than one goal per game. Neither side can count on a natural goalscorer. This relegation six-pointer, therefore, had scoreless draw written all over it. And, in that regard at least, it did not disappoint.
In Danny Morrissey, Limerick at least had a clinical finisher in their midst. But the unconditioned 24-year-old, hamstrung after scoring a precious double at Waterford, is now just another victim of 2018’s relentless fixture schedule.
Sligo, too, were absent their top goalscorer for this one. But four-goal Adam Morgan, without a league strike since March 16, can hardly be considered a big loss.
In the Englishman’s absence, 19-year-old Lewis Morrison led the Bit O’Red line alone for an hour here. And the Scot was simultaneously one of his side’s strongest performers; and its weakest link.
During Morrison’s time on the pitch, Sligo created three quality chances; all three of which began with the teenager’s crafty false-nine play.
Dropping off between the lines, where Caolan McAleer and Rhys McCabe were also finding pockets, Morrison instigated many of the hosts’ most exhilarating attacking moves.
Unfortunately for Rovers fans, the ex-St Mirren man also picked up where Morgan left off in one crucial respect. Two of those three chances ended in wasteful finishing, from a striker that has yet to strike a senior goal. One miss in particular, eight yards out from a Seamus Sharkey cross, was criminal. Morrison, in giving the woodwork the Temur Ketsbaia treatment, clearly agreed.
Sharkey, starting his first league game in 12, was a revelation here at right-back. Punished in March for two costly errors against Dundalk, the former Limerick defender took his opportunity with both hands. But the Isle of Man native had two helpful factors working in his favour.
First, Daniel Kearns’ tendency to drift inside allowed Sharkey to advance untracked. And, second, Sligo’s extreme left-wing focus, that so dragged Limerick’s defensive unit rightward, left Sharkey ripe for the switch-of-play picking. Sligo, to their shame, did not take the out-ball he represented often enough.
They did, however, force Tommy Barrett into an early tactical change. Eoin Wearen’s mobility issues rendered the inside-left pocket even more exploitable for the likes of McAleer, Morrison and McCabe.
As such, the Limerick manager wisely swapped Wearen and Kilian Cantwell at the quarter-way point, returning the latter to a holding midfield role in which he has excelled this year.
Overwhelmed in the centre, and on the back foot throughout, Limerick did at least carry a sporadic — but significant — threat on the counterattack. Mark O’Sullivan, indefatigable as ever at 35, was again to the fore in this regard, manfully chasing lost causes for the full 90 minutes.
Indeed, one such wild goose chase — successful — inspired both of Limerick’s quick-fire brushes with the woodwork. Cian Coleman rattled Mitchell Beeney’s crossbar first, arriving late to head Shane Duggan’s whipped cross. And, although Sligo often exploited space in behind the Cork native, Coleman’s tireless box-to-box running was again a joy to watch here.
Like O’Sullivan, the 21-year-old’s energy and drive was central to Limerick’s efforts to break in behind Sligo’s advanced rearguard.
Indeed, the second of John Mahon’s yellow cards, both of which were earned for blocking off a breaking O’Sullivan, started with a characteristic Coleman burst-from-deep.
Inspired by two beneficial substitutions from manager Ger Lyttle, Sligo remained dominant in the second-half prior to Mahon’s 81st-minute dismissal. Lyttle reorganised his side into a 4-4-1-1 shape with Ally Roy leading the line; ably supported by the evergreen Raff Cretaro at number-10.
Harnessed thereafter with Wixted, rather than the withdrawn McAleer, left-back Calum Waters remained influential on the overlap for the Bit O’Red. And McCabe, switched to the right-flank in the reshuffle, should have finished one of several excellent back-post crosses from his fellow Scot. A fine way for Waters, whose return to Kilmarnock is imminent, to end his Sligo stay.
And later, when the pendulum swung Limerick’s way after Mahon’s departure, Cretaro’s experience proved absolutely vital to his side. The Tubbercurry native positioned himself brilliantly to receive the first ball out of defence, leading countless pressure-relieving counterattacks.
Limerick, too, benefited from Barrett’s second-half switch-ups — even if one of them was enforced. With an aggregate of 15 players unavailable for both sides on Friday evening, Billy Dennehy became the latest player to add his name to the ever-growing list of fixture crunch victims. Colm Walsh-Loghlen came on in the left-back’s stead.
With Walsh-O’Loghlen, a natural winger, stationed on the left, Dennehy’s departure forced Barrett into a dizzying array of positional changes. Cantwell assumed the 29-year-old’s full-back mantle, necessitating Duggan’s return to a holding midfield role, and Kearns’ assumption of Duggan’s number-10 duties.
And the Northern Irishman, once of the Showgrounds parish, matched Cretaro’s efforts between the lines. Kearns, dancing off the ball from left to right, instigated three of Limerick’s best four post-Mahon moments. Brilliant last-ditch defending from the likes of Kyle Callan-McFadden and Seamus Sharkey repelled the 26-year-old’s dangerous deliveries.
The exciting Will Fitzgerald, too, made an impact off the bench. But Limerick missed a trick by not switching Fitzgerald onto Keaney — Sligo’s emergency, post-Mahon, right-back — sooner.
That mismatch produced a wonderful 94th-minute byline cross that Mark O’Sullivan somehow contrived to head right into Beeney’s hands. The 35-year-old, like Sligo’s Morrison, let down some wonderful general play with some woeful trigger-pulling here.
In fact, the former Cork City striker bookended his night by wasting two glorious chances. His 6th-minute decision to hit the floor, rather than try to head home Kearns’ deft back-post inswinger, also sticks in the mind.
Plenty in common, then, for both Sligo and Limerick; not least the fact that they remain locked together on 17 points — and 14 goals — in 8th and 9th respectively. Consecutive clean sheets, for the first time in 2018, suggests the Bit O’Red are on an upward trajectory. As does the manner in which they moved the ball here, creating gaps in Limerick’s defensive unit.
But without a goalscorer those efforts were, and are, for naught. And the same goes for Limerick, too. The transfer window opens in just over a month, and shortlists will soon be drawn up. One suspects these two clubs are about to have one more thing in common.
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