LOI premier division
By Dave Donnelly
FIRST faces second in undoubtedly the biggest of the Premier Division so far as Shamrock Rovers make the short trip across Dublin to face St Patrick’s Athletic at Richmond Park.
There are just two points between the capital city’s rivals after the first series of games as the league’s two outstanding teams renew acquaintance in Inchicore on Saturday evening.
Little more than a fingernail has separated the sides this season – indeed, they were parted for less than two minutes when they met in a tense season opener in Tallaght in March.
The Athletic took an 87th-minute lead thanks to a fortuitous Roberto Lopes own goal before ex-Saints Sean Hoare and Aaron Greene combined for a dramatic late equaliser.
Only a Pats draw at Sligo Rovers on Bank Holiday Monday – as Rovers beat Waterford – puts distance between them now following Ian Bermingham’s injury-time equaliser.
The Hoops’ win on Monday saw them break the record for consecutive league games unbeaten – at 31 – but if anybody can bring that record to an end it’s the resurgent Saints.
“It’s going to be very tough. They’ve had a good win again [against Waterford] and they’ve broken the unbeaten record,” said Saints defender Lee Desmond.
“It’s going to be a very tough game. There’s going to be times when they dominate a lot of the ball – we know that – but I think we have to start well.
“They’re a team that will punish you, but we know we can win too. They know that. The gaffer is unbeaten against them – four draws in the last four games.
“They know they’re going to come against a good defensive side, and we will create chances up the other end too.”
Stephen O’Donnell’s Saints have been a team reborn this year following a disappointing couple of years, and have rediscovered the free-scoring touch of old.
Only Rovers have scored more – 16 to the Saints’ 14 – while Pats have the most miserly defensive record in the league with four, despite O’Donnell having to shuffle the pack regularly.
All of which tees up what is set to be an engrossing encounter from start to finish – with stars like Chris Forrester, Graham Burke and Dylan Watts showcasing the best Irish football has to offer.
Burke posted an early contender for goal of the season as he netted from the halfway in Derry, while Forrester’s 30-yard stunner against Longford last Friday rivals it for sheer audacious technique.
Saturday’s game is likely to be much more cagey but with entertainers of that ilk, to which Pats’ teenager winger Darragh Burns can be added, there is always the chance of something special.
And if it’s anything like the televised encounter between the sides on the first day of the season, there will be no shortage of drama in Dublin 8 as the late evening light dims.
One man who has had little time to shine since making the move to Shamrock Rovers, due to the Covid lockdown and a badly-timed achilles injury, is striker Rory Gaffney.
The Tuam native debuted for the Hoops in the final home game in Tallaght before lockdown as 7,000 watched a classic 3-2 win over Dundalk.
Dundalk’s Jordan Flores was nominated for a Puskas Award for his first-half volley, before sub Gaffney laid on the winner for Jack Byrne in the second half.
Gaffney has made his mark this season as he leads the Hoops’ scoring tally with four goals, and he’s been impressed by the improvement he’s seen from Saturday’s hosts.
“They’ve signed some good players. Forrester is flying and [Rónán] Coughlan is a good signing from Sligo,” Gaffney told the Dublin Gazette.
“I used to play with [Coughlan’s] older brother Garbhan at Limerick, who was a good player as well. And I played against Forrester a few times in England.
“We’ve been flying, but I think we’ve showed great character [too]. How many points have we picked up in injury time or the last five minutes of games?”
PHOTOS – George Kelly