By Dave Donnelly
SHAMROCK Rovers manager Stephen Bradley was thrilled with his side’s performance despite being edged out on penalties by Dundalk in the President’s Cup on Friday night.
“We were excellent. We can be really, really happy with what we produced,” Bradley said following the final whistle.
“They had maybe two five-minute spells in the first half, but other than that we weren’t in any danger.
“We controlled the game in most aspects and, at this stage of the season, it’s really pleasing to see considering the spine of our team is new players.
“It’s about having your legs and getting more minutes into you and that bit more sharpness on the ball, that bit of cleverness. A few things around the box didn’t fall our way.
“After they went down to ten men, they literally [had everyone] 18 yards from their goal and it was hard to find that opening, but I can’t fault them today.”
It was a replay of November’s FAI Cup final at the Aviva Stadium but the outcome was much the same as the Lilywhites lifted the trophy after the sides were deadlocked after 90 minutes.
There was no extra time – to the relief of both sets of players as they work their way to full fitness – and Roberto Lopes the unfortunate one to miss the losing penalty.
Albanian keeper Alessio Abibi saved two penalties on his debut, also denying Rory Gaffney, while Graham Burke passed up a chance to win it as he skied his penalty.
It was a fittingly entertaining finish to an eventful game that had seen seven yellow cards and one red, to Faroese defender Sonni Nattestad, amid howling wind and periodic torrential rain.
Nattestad headed Dundalk in front just before half time only for a stunning individual goal from Rovers’ Liam Scales – playing in an unfamiliar left wing-back role – to levell things up after the break.
Rovers fielded all four of their winter signings – defenders Sean Gannon and Sean Hoare and midfielders Chris McCann and Danny Mandroiu – from the start.
McCann was particularly impressive in the engine room spot vacated by Aaron McEneff, and he kept Abibi honest with a couple of first-half efforts from distance.
Scales was unfortunate not to give his side a 19th-minute lead when he met Graham Burke’s corner with a firm header, but the ball bounced back off the bar and Dundalk scrambled it away.
Dundalk pressed high but only really came into the game late in the half, and Latvian international Raivis Jurkovskis failed to pick out David McMillan with a rare adventure in behind the defence.
But the visitors took the lead three minutes before the break as Six-foot-six Nattestad, who will hope to add to his 31 international caps next week, nodded a free header past Alan Mannus.
Rovers were back on terms within two minutes of the resumption as Scales produced a Bergkamp-like moment of skill, flicking the ball over Jurkovskis before calmly finding the bottom corner.
Nattestad saw red on the hour mark for a reckless lunge on Graham Burke – while he got the ball, he left the ground with two feet and could have few complaints.
Dundalk defended deep for the remainder, Gaffney and Burke forcing saves from Abibi before the keeper stole the show in the shoot-out.
PHOTO CAPTION – Sean Hoare holds up possession for Shamrock Rovers. (Picture: George Kelly/Shamrock Rovers FC)