Shamrock Rovers 3 Finn Harps 0
Long before the end, this season was being framed as the beginning of another grandiose period in the history of Shamrock Rovers.
Tallaght was playing its greatest hits, Danny Mandroiu on lead guitar as Richie Towell bangs the drums.
Where will they settle in the pantheon of great Rovers teams?
There is some way to travel before they catch the 1960s six-in-a-row of FAI Cups on Liam Tuohy’s watch. Some miles off the Louis Kilcoyne funded four-in-a-row when Milltown last housed The Hoops of the 1980s.
But their 19th league title, a back-to-back no less, falls just short of the club’s last revival, 10 years ago under Michael O’Neill. Once they get a handle on playing European football deep into the winter that era will be lassoed. And big dreams can really begin.
Their exceptional squad can only be lauded but the lack of true competition almost guarantees the 2020s will be Stephen Bradley’s to dominate or spoil. That’s if the young head coach decides to stay put.
More Airtricity League titles are promised, because Rovers are doing what is expected of a modern Irish club – they provide safe haven for veterans like Joey O’Brien and Towell to see out their 30s while launching the careers of Gavin Bazunu and Aidomo Emakhu from an academy funded by billionaire Dermot Desmond. They even offer an important halfway house for late developing talent like Liam Scales.
Dublin rivals may hate them over small matters but they do not care. Nobody can get within 13 points of them with three matches to spare. St Patrick’s Athletic are worthy runners up. Others, not so much. Dundalk are currently a basket case. Sligo Rovers valiant drive towards European football is impressive but they were never contenders.
Rovers are out on their own. The trophy cannot be handed over until Drogheda United wrap the schedule on November 19th but 7,030 captivated supporters are happy to wait and come again.
A near full house at Tallaght, with Hoopman back on the sideline, an extra burger van and Finn Harps manager Ollie Horgan talking about “keeping an eye” on Monday’s must-winner at home to Drogheda painted the picture before kick-off.
Slumped in the relegation play-off spot, Horgan was more concerned about fresh injuries.
“We’ll take a cut off it, but try to keep it tight,” he told RTÉ, “and make a spectacle of it, for ye.”
The only surprise was it took Rovers two minutes to score. It was that man Mandroiu, again. In a season when the former Brighton player threatened to rejoin the higher echelons of the game – Stephen Kenny named him in Ireland’s summer squad but no cap followed – 12 goals have done more than most to help Rovers retain the title.
Number 11 was as sweet as any of them; a clever diagonal run onto Sean Gannon’s pass still required rounding goalkeeper Mark McGinley and finishing from a tricky angle. No problem for Mandroiu, whose talent has never been in question. After an unfulfilling stint at Bohemians, the 23-year-old has found his groove at the best club in the land. And he was only getting started.
The quick goal settled Rovers as much as it deflated Harps. It clarified any lingering doubts about how this was going pan out.
Towell was delighted to see the visitors sit back, as the most experienced operator on the pitch could quarterback proceedings, with one arcing ball for Rory Gaffney well blocked by Shane McEleney for a corner.
That prompted a burst of green fog from Rovers fans behind McGinley’s goal, which made it difficult for people watching at home to spot Mandoiu’s second as Dylan Watt’s touch and cross found the Dubliner ghosting between blue shirts for a diving header, and with 23 minutes clocked we had ourselves an exhibition match.
As the rain streamed down everyone but the hat-trick chaser would have happily called time, let Harps get back up the road and allow the celebrations to begin.
It ended with a clear view of the future as Emakhu sprinted onto Graham Burke’s ball to expertly finish three days after celebrating his 18th birthday. Seconds later he was engulfed by a pitch invasion of fellow teenagers and young boys. Nobody was going home any time soon.
Shamrock Rovers: Mannus; Gannon, Lopes (capt), Grace, O’Brien; Watts (Burke 73), Mandroiu (Noonan 85), Towell (ONeill 73), Farrugia (Emakhu 82), McCann; Gaffney (Greene 73).
Finn Harps: McGinley; Boyle, McEleney, Webster, Mustoe; O’Sullivan (Foley 69), Connolly (Doherty 82), Coyle, Rainey; McNamee, Boyd (Owolabi 62).
Referee: Paul McLaughlin (Donegal).