Domineering Rovers end Brandywell hoodoo as title-race takes shape
The four-in-a-row chasing Shamrock Rovers side delivered an assured display as they climbed to second in the table with a 2-0 victory over Derry City.
The sense of anticipation was palpable pre-match as the crowd rolled into the floodlit Ryan McBride Brandywell on Monday evening, expectant of a repeat of March's dramatic encounter in Tallaght.
Whilst the quality of football on display was not to the incredulous standard of that early season clash, the intensity and passion on show from both Derry City and Shamrock Rovers more than made up for it.
Much has been made in recent weeks of Derry's rather unique position of picking up better results away from home, with the quality of the artificial surface at the Brandywell called into question.
However, having handily dispatched of St. Patrick's Athletic on Friday evening, coupled with the fact that Rovers had not won on any of their last four visits to Derry, Ruaidhrí Higgins' side looked to have come to terms with the often-maligned surface.
Stephen Bradley changed tact though from last week's victory over Sligo Rovers, opting to field a lone-striker in Celtic's Johnny Kenny, with an extra man in midfield attempting to disrupt Derry's imperious tandem of Sadou Diallo and Adam O'Reilly.
For Derry, some eyebrows were raised when new-signing and former UCD frontman Colm Whelan wasn't included in the starting XI after back-to-back goalscoring cameos.
Big players for big moments:
There are plenty of twists and turns ahead of League of Ireland fans in this year's title race, but what transpired at the Brandywell on Monday night felt hugely impactful to those in attendance.
After a cagey opening half hour in which neither side created a clear goalscoring opportunity, former Brighton midfielder Richie Towell produced a sublime finish to lift Lee Grace's headed pass over the helpless Brian Maher in the Derry City goal.
The travelling Rovers contingent didn't have to wait long to see a second, with the much-in-demand Jack Byrne capitalising on a poor clearance from Maher, who left an empty net for the one-time Manchester City youth product to strike home from 35 yards.
Byrne didn't just contribute with the long-range effort though, with his cross-field switch of play to Lee Grace for Towell's opener perhaps the most technically astute moment of the evening.
A superbly placed set-piece from the Ireland-capped midfielder ten minutes into the second half saw the Tallaght side nearly add a third, but centre half Grace failed to quite reach the tantalising delivery.
For a game which saw the league's two most quality-laden squads do battle, it was the added experience of Rovers' big-name captures which ultimately proved the difference in seeing them add to their now ten game unbeaten run.
Cause for optimism for youthful Derry:
Whilst Ruaidhrí Higgins' side will be disappointed to endure yet another unfavourable result in front of their boisterous home support, there were some green shoots for the Candystripes.
Ireland Under 21 international Colm Whelan replaced Jamie McGonigle at the break, with the young striker linking play well and offering a real threat to the Rovers back three.
City fans had a heart-in-mouth moment though in the closing stages, as Whelan clutched his knee in pain. Having just returned from a year-long injury absence, the Brandywell faithful will be hoping that it was nothing serious for the 22-year-old.
Similarly, Derry City's top scorer for the season, Jordan McEneff, was introduced at the break and allowed his team to put a halt to the Hoops first-half midfield dominance.
Former St. Patrick's Athletic midfielder Adam O'Reilly also showed his qualities, as Derry attempted to deal with the absences of both Patrick McElneny and Will Patching.
Derry's attention will now shift quickly towards an away double-header which sees them face off against Drogheda and league leaders Bohemians.
For Rovers, the victory sets up a mouthwatering Dublin derby on Friday night at Tallaght Stadium, as Stephen Bradley's side welcome Declan Devine's table-toppers to D24.
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