Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
With dreams of Benidorm dancing in players’ heads, this was the ultimate pre-holiday snoozefest. A somnolent Shamrock Rovers looked every inch the side that exacted only one win on the road this year. But, ultimately, Limerick were sleepier, and the Hoops had the quality to take advantage.
With five first-teamers still lying stricken on the treatment table, Tommy Barrett would be forgiven for trying to keep it tight here. Rovers might be far poorer than the sum of their parts, but danger still abounds in their attacking ranks; not least in the form of the Deepdale-bound Graham Burke.
Barrett wasn’t fazed, though, as evidenced by the open manner in which the Limerick manager set his side up. Both full-backs, Kilian Cantwell and Billy Dennehy, advanced regularly, even without secure possession. The channels open wide for the Hoops, only ponderous play from the likes of Ronan Finn and Dan Carr saved the hosts’ bacon.
At least the flanks held promise for Rovers. On the right, Joel Coustrain continues to grab the opportunity afforded to him by Brandon Miele’s injury issues. Making his third consecutive start for the Hoops, the Ardnacrusha native gave Dennehy the absolute run around here, fully meriting his first goal of 2018.
Scored on the stroke of half-time, Coustrain’s opener could be equally chalked up to two factors: Rovers’ left-sided strength; and Limerick’s abject defending.
Sean Kavanagh, whose technique and decision-making acuity will surely see him follow Burke back to England, started the move with a deep cross. Dennehy missed a routine defensive header, allowing Carr to impersonate a pinball machine with his first touch. Burke rescued the loose ball at the byline, Killian Brouder missed a chance to clear, and Coustrain did the rest.
Burke, who also rattled the woodwork with a sensationally dipping second-half free-kick, was one of the few players awake on the night. But even he nodded off in the defensive phase; as has often been his wont. Both the 24-year-old’s shoddy defensive transitions, and his slight physique, need serious work if he is to make it in the Championship.
Disinterested in offering much protection to his left-back Kavanagh, Burke allowed Cantwell to advance freely throughout. The ex-Finn Harps defender duly joined Shane Duggan, Cian Coleman and Daniel Kearns in overloading Kavanagh in the 15th minute.
Mark O’Sullivan was the penalty-area beneficiary, holding off Joey O’Brien to flick onto Kearns, who was foiled at close-range by the amazingly authoritative 16-year-old goalkeeper, Gavin Bazunu. Wasting early big chances has been a recurring theme for Limerick in 2018, and this game was no different.
It would be their only chance. Both sides were guilty of unambitious passing, executed at a testimonial pace, but the Shannonsiders took the biscuit. Rovers’ defensive unit looked serene for the most part; Stephen Bradley’s side have now kept six clean sheets in the 11 games since Greg Bolger was handed a central-midfield partner.
Bolger’s isolation in the early part of the season was a blindingly obvious problem that Bradley took far too long to resolve. And the impending departure of Burke, scorer of 13 of the Hoops’ 37 goals, poses the Hoops manager another big one.
Burke sealed the win, just after half-time, thanks to more jaw-dropping defending from Limerick. With Dennehy again AWOL, Brouder somehow let Carr get to a speculative channel-ball first. Eoin Wearen, an admittedly immobile midfielder-by-trade, failed to narrow the gap in a timely manner, permitting Burke all the time in the world to net his striker’s cut-back.
Brouder limped off soon after, potentially with a bruised ego, as did Shane Tracy, whose unacceptable conditioning saw him get bulldozed off the ball by the physically superior Bolger on more than one occasion. Burke bore the brunt of the 29-year old’s frustration, as Tracy became the fourth of Limerick’s indisciplined cohort to see Sean Grant’s yellow card.
Coleman later became the fifth, as the toll of one win in nine games began to tell on the players’ mental states. Mark O’Sullivan, in particular, was fortunate not to get his marching orders for two yellow cards.
Petulant throughout, as O’Brien used all his experience to thwart him, the target man unwisely slid in on Ethan Boyle while already on a dissent-related caution. Grant, fortunately for Limerick, did not reach for his pocket on that occasion. And O’Sullivan cooled after half-time, too, justifying Barrett’s decision not to give him to heave-ho.
Whether or not several members of Barrett’s squad get the heave-ho, involuntarily or otherwise, during this two-week break remains to be seen. But, ahead of a crunch clash with Bray, who now sit six points below Limerick at the table’s foot, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that this group of players is in desperate need of a shake-up.
Rovers, meanwhile, will undoubtedly take great heart from stringing two wins together and securing that elusive sophomore victory on the road. But, on the basis of this performance, all is not yet well in Tallaght; especially with 13 goals and four assists about to walk out the door. The Hoops will remain hard to penetrate, particularly with Sam Bone sitting beside Bolger, and Alan Mannus challenging the years-belying Bazunu.
But the final-third remains a incoherent mess at moment, with Burke’s individual brilliance covering a multitude. With 2018 already a bust given the resources at his disposal, winning the race for Patrick McEleney looks a must to secure a face-saving European spot for Bradley. Failing that, a thus-far bafflingly supportive Rovers board might finally remove their fingers from their ears.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112