FAI Senior Cup final
Shamrock Rovers 1
Rovers win 4-2 on penalties
After the crippling tension of the previous 120 minutes, there was eerie calm in the air as Gary O’Neill made the long walk forward from the centre circle to the penalty spot.
Moments earlier, the heart of every Shamrock Rovers fan was well and truly in mouth when Jordan Flores’ spot-kick squirmed through the hands of Hoops keeper Alan Mannus.
The Belfast man, as he had with Daniel Cleary’s previous kick, went the right way but couldn’t keep hold on the slick surface so it fell to O’Neill to seal a record 25th FAI Cup title.
The last penalty the midfielder took was for UCD back in April when he was brought down in injury time against Cork City, and duly hit the net to seal a remarkable comeback win.
For a Kerryman, a last-minute spot-kick against Cork is a big deal but the cup final at the Aviva Stadium in front of 33,000 is another level of nerve-wracking – he didn’t show it.
O’Neill calmly sent Dundalk keeper Gary Rogers the wrong way and made a beeline for the Shamrock Rovers’ ultras section behind the goal, leaping with delight as he ran.
Rovers’ 32-year FAI Cup drought was the longest in the history of a club for whom the national trophy holds a particular allure and significance.
The last time they won, in 1987, was the year the fabled Glenmalure Park closed, ushering in 20 years of homelessness until they finally moved into new digs at Tallaght Stadium.
As the clock ticked through to the third minute of added time, it appeared Stephen Bradley’s side had finally gotten the monkey of their backs.
Aaron McEneff’s penalty in the 90th minute, after Aaron Greene had been brought down by Rogers, looked to be enough for Rovers to see out a deserved victory.
The architect of that goal, Graham Burke, had been replaced by the defensive-minded Greg Bolger moments earlier in a bid to see out the final moments.
Burke’s superb step and one-two with Greene, following an incisive pass from O’Neill, saw the striker scamper through before being sent tumbling by Rogers.
McEneff, who scored the first of his three penalties during the regular season with a deft Panenka-style chip against his former club Derry City, kept his nerve and hit the net.
Ecstasy soon turned to deflation as, with virtually the last kick the game, a deflection off man-of-the-match Roberto Lopes sat up for Michael Duffy who finished wonderfully on the volley.
It was cruel on the Hoops, who had played most of the attacking football in the game to that point, and they now had to negotiate another 30 minutes without the creative Burke. Still, they boasted four other senior internationals in Lopes, Mannus, Jack Byrne and Joey O’Brien, while the introduction of Danny Lafferty in extra time made it six.
The experience of the mammoth Mannus told in the final minute of extra time as he pulled off a wonderful sprawling save to turn Georgie Kelly’s close-range shot around the post.
He stood tall again in the shoot-out, watching Duffy’s effort cannon back off the bar before palming Cleary’s kick away – the stage was set for O’Neill, and he delivered.