Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
St Patrick’s Athletic’s win drought is over. Having presided over seven straight defeats, shipping 18 goals along the way, Liam Buckley’s thirst was in danger of becoming terminal. The Saints only bagged three goals of their own throughout that abject run, too. And, on the basis of the first-half here, it’s easy to see why.
To say it was difficult to divine how Pat’s intended to score a goal would be an understatement. Against a compact Limerick side, happy to play on the break, Buckley committed the fatal error of overloading the centre. Darragh Markey and Dean Clarke, initially fielded in wide positions, both tended to come inside. The Saints’ play, therefore, was congested, ponderous and ripe for the midfield-press picking.
Back in May, at the Markets Field, Tommy Barrett was unlucky not to extract a result from Buckley’s side. Pressing the Pat’s full-backs and midfielders, before breaking into their vacated zones, worked a charm. But poor finishing let the Super Blues down, with the hosts ultimately falling to Ryan Brennan’s second-half winner.
But, hey: if at first you don’t succeed, try again. And that’s exactly what Barrett did here, as Limerick’s first-half press again proved too hot to handle for a languid Saints midfield. Here, too, Buckley very much played into Limerick hands, with more baffling selection choices.
Midfield dynamo Jamie Lennon, man of the match on Limerick’s last Inchicore visit, was omitted. As was long-time Limerick tormentor, Conan Byrne. Instead Conor Clifford took Lennon’s spot at the base of the Pat’s midfield. And, with Markey inexplicably required on the right-flank, Killian Brennan completed the Pat’s midfield triangle with brother Ryan.
Neither Clifford nor the elder Brennan boasts any great mobility in their respective lockers. And Limerick’s dynamic holding midfield duo, comprised of Shane Duggan and the debuting Darren Murphy, took full advantage.
The visitors forced a boatload of middle-third turnovers before the break. And with Pat’s aggressive full-backs often caught upfield, without secure possession, Limerick’s wingers duly scuttled into the spaces provided. Will Fitzgerald, fielded here on the left, created two big chances for Barry Maguire, who ran off Clifford for fun in the opening quarter. Right-winger Karl O’Sullivan also impacted the game significantly, winning the corner from which Limerick eked their penalty-kick opener.
So porous were Pat’s in the face of fast-breaks, that Buckley was forced into an early tactical tweak. Clifford’s perennial isolation forced the Saints boss to drop Brennan alongside the recent Limerick departee. Markey duly moved inside, to his natural number-10 role. Ryan Brennan, therefore, drew the right-wing short straw, rendering him invisible until the second-half. Whither, once again, Conan Byrne?
Buckley’s 4-2-3-1 didn’t really render his side any more secure, with Clifford’s new partner not exactly renowned for his defensive sensibilities. Pat’s did threaten from a couple of set-pieces, with Ian Bermingham going particularly close to reprising his March winner. But Maguire remained elusive; the Dutchman again popping up free in the box to tee up a Fitzgerald volley.
No surprise, then, that Buckley whipped both Clifford and Brennan at half-time, returning to his trusty 4-3-3 in the process. Lennon and Conan Byrne, both asked to carry the can for the Saints’ recent abject run, were belatedly restored to the fray.
And, with Limerick’s interrupted training schedule starting to bite, and legs starting to tire, both substitutions completely — and immediately — turned the game on its head. From a position of total control, denying Pat’s a single first-half shot on target, Barrett’s side went on to ship seven after the break. And Conan Byrne, a man who never lets Limerick out of his sights, was central to most of them.
With Lennon offering real security in front of the back four, both Markey and Ryan Brennan — restored to the middle — were finally free to do some pressing of their own. And in Byrne, Pat’s at last had some real width at their disposal, necessary to stretch Limerick’s doggedly narrow defence.
And stretch it the winger did, as Byrne directly involved himself in three big Pat’s chances before Duggan fouled him in the box on 76. Byrne himself did the business from 12 yards. But, in truth, were it not for goalkeeper Tommy Holland, and some poor point-blank finishing from Dean Clarke and Thomas Byrne, Pat’s would have been level far sooner.
Out on their feet, Limerick were truly at Pat’s mercy throughout the second-half. Maguire, playing through the pain barrier with potentially intractable nerve damage, looked particularly spent. But Barrett had few genuine options at his disposal on the bench.
Containment mode was therefore the only option, meaning the Super Blues could do nothing to pin back full-backs Ian Bermingham and Simon Madden. And it was the latter who overlapped to set-up Byrne’s utterly inevitable headed winner. Limerick’s leggy midfield, their pressing exploits a distant memory, could not stop Markey from feeding Madden the ball. The 21-year-old had a ball in the half-space to Duggan’s left, throughout the second-half.
Barrett did switch to a 4-4-2 on 81, partnering Connor Ellis’ impressive channel-running with the poorly-conditioned Danny Morrissey. And a late rally, during which Kilian Cantwell rattled the bar from corner-kick, and Limerick had the rebound wrongly ruled out for offside, deserved to bear fruit.
But that Cantwell effort, struck in the final minute of normal time, was Limerick’s first — and only — effort of the entire second-half. Pat’s, by way of comparison, managed 12. This, therefore, was the stereotypical game of two halves, implying a draw was the fair result. But the magnitude of Limerick’s post-break collapse was massive. And, given Pat’s plethora of second-half chances — including three point-blankers — the Saints’ margin of victory could and should have been far greater.
Results aside, Barrett continues to eke fantastic performances from the resources at his disposal. But the young manager will no doubt curse the disruption caused by his club’s financial difficulties — and the hasty PFAI intervention that so exacerbated them. Buckley, on the other hand, will rue an appalling starting selection, thanking his lucky stars that Limerick tired enough to let his changes pull it out of the fire.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112