Stephen Bradley’s invincibles turn focus to FAI Cup

by Dave Donnelly

The records keep coming for Shamrock Rovers as the Hoops became the first side in 83 years to go through a full League of Ireland season unbeaten.

Having already extended their record to 18 league titles – three more than nearest challengers Dundalk – Stephen Bradley’s side secure the ‘invincibles’ tag with a 2-0 victory over Shelbourne.

The last team to achieve the feat was Shamrock Rovers, in 1927, while the only team to do so before that was also Rovers, in 1925.

Both of those, like this year’s league, were 18-game seasons, although neither was crammed into a four-month window like this season’s Covid-inspired squeeze.

Goals from Jack Byrne, who is surely nailed on for the player of the year gong, and Aaron Greene secured a comfortable win at Tolka Park on Monday night.

The result consigned Shels to a relegation play-off with Longford Town on Sunday but Rovers’ attention has already turned to the FAI Cup the following Friday.

With three players – Byrne (Ireland), Roberto Lopes (with Cape Verde) and Liam Scales (Ireland Under-21s) – away on international duty, the quarter-final with Finn Harps has been pushed back.

But, with the Ballybofey side celebrating a miracle escape from relegation themselves, Rovers will be confident they can set up a semi with either Sligo Rovers or Derry City.

Success in the cup would mean a first league and cup double for the Hoops since Jim McLaughlin’s famous four-in-a-row side achieved the feat in 1987.

“I’m delighted for the players as they’ve had to wait and be patient,” Bradley told the Dublin Gazette.

“They have worked so hard all year and this is what you build for, even if it’s a shortened season. You build towards being league champions.

“The cup is now our priority, to remain unbeaten, and then get ready for next year.”

Bradley brought in just one player, centre-half Scales, in the off-season after securing the FAI Cup last November.

Having secured his UCD teammates Gary O’Neill and Neil Farrugia the previous summer, Bradley had most of the parts in place for his first league title.

The 35-year-old revealed he is likely to be similarly judicious in his decision-making over the winter as he looks to add quality rather than quantity.

“We’ll definitely try to improve the group as a whole, but we won’t bring in many. We’ve worked to get to this position where we don’t have to bring in many.

“This gives us more hunger to do it again next year. We are only getting started, we really are. We had a staff meeting about next year and how we are going to get better.

“It gives you more hunger to do it in front of 7,500 next year. We got a little taste of it and I really believe that this team can go and dominate over the next few years, I really do.”

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