What’s wrong with Shamrock Rovers this season?

26 Jul

What’s gone wrong with Shamrok Rovers this season?

It seems amazing how far and how quickly the Airtricity League Champions for 2010 and 2011 have fallen since appointing Stephen Kenny as Manager to replace the hugely successful Michael O’Neill, whose 3 year contract wasn’t renewed by the board of Shamrock Rovers at the end of the 2011 season.

 

A brief review of O’Neill’s time will recall that he was given the job in 2009 in time for the club’s emotional and overdue return to an official home ground after 22 years of homelessness following the closure of Glenmalure Park in Milltown.  Tallaght Stadium was finally completed by South Dublin County Council and in many fans’ eyes, getting settled in at Tallaght would be the goal and that success would hopefully follow in a couple of years time.  The re-birth of Rovers was the number one priority in my opinion and I would guess in the majority of Hoops’ fans.

 

Michael O’Neill immediately put his stamp on the new-look Rovers as they competed bravely and surprisingly with Bohemians for the full 2009 season, with the goals of the O’Neill signed Gary Twigg keeping Rovers competitive and raising the long-suffering fans hopes of an unlikely League title. This excellent first season in Tallaght also gave rise to a new generation of Rovers fans as the move to Tallaght proved a match made in Heaven in terms of location, pulling power and identity with the local area.   A glamorous July friendly with Real Madrid (and a respectable 1-0 defeat) whose team included Ronaldo,  Schneider, Raul, Benzema, Marcelo and other seasoned internationals also added to Rovers immediate re-birth, but it was the seemingly over-achieving march to runners-up in 2009 that hinted at silverware under the former Northern Ireland international’s management.

 

So it panned out.  Despite a shaky start to the 2010 campaign, Rovers captured their first title since 1994 with a nerve-wracking 2-2 final day draw in Bray (Twigg and Tommy Stewart netting) to dethrone Bohemians as Champions on goal difference.  Rovers had also defeated Israeli outfit Bnei Yehuda in the Europa League (2-1 on aggregate) to give Juventus two very decent games in the next round (Juventus winning 2-0 in Tallaght and 1-0 in rain-soaked Modena).  The European adventure lent weight to O’Neill’s reputation as a shrewd manager, even if his detractors complained of the brand of football.  He had guided Rovers to a runners up and a title in his two seasons, he had done his job so far and done it extremely well.

 

It was in the 2011 season that O’Neill took the club to another dimension altogether.  The League title was retained with less nervous anxiety than 2010 and the Setanta Cup was won for the first time (defeating Dundalk 2-0 in the final) but it was the performances in Europe that catapulted O’Neill’s reputation and the club’s profile to previously unchartered waters.  The Champions League qualifiers saw O’Neill’s Hoops defeat Flora Tallinn 1-0 on aggregate, before a 3-0 aggregate defeat to Copenhagen (1-0 away and 2-0 in Tallaght despite two excellent performances) saw Rovers into the Europa League final preliminary round to face Partizan Belgrade, on paper and pedigree this was a massive ask of Rovers.

 

Rovers displayed amazing courage, organisation, spirit and no little skill in drawing 1-1 in both legs, having trailed in both games and it was left to Stephen O’Donnell to send Rovers through to the group stages by scoring an extra time penalty in Belgrade.  O’Neill became the first manager to bring a League of Ireland team to the group stages of European football in what had become an historic and momentous season.  Although Rovers lost all 6 group matches, the opposition in Tottenham Hotspur, Rubin Kazan (Russia) and PAOK Salonika (Greece) was formidable and Rovers did compete very well for most of those matches, with early goals being a hefty punishment at that level (apart from having the cheek to take the lead in White Hart Lane through Stephen Rice!).

 

O’Neill therefore was in a strong bargaining position with the Rovers’ board at the end of the 2011 season having secured three trophies in his three year contract to date.  The board however opted not to bow to O’Neill’s financial demands and his contract was not renewed.  Most Rovers fans would probably have agreed with the board’s decision, given the financial woes that plagued Rovers following the 1987 enforced move from Milltown and given the club’s membership-owned status.  O’Neill went on to accept the vacant Northern Ireland national team’s managerial position, while Rovers appointed Stephen Kenny as their new gaffer, tempting him away from Derry City where he had done a fine job and had Derry competing for silverware in the 2011 season with an attractive brand of football.

 

Since the opening games of the 2012 season however, Kenny’s performances and that of the team he tried to rebuild have been nothing short of startling.  Startling in terms of incompetence, disorganisation, defensive calamaties and an apparent lack of spirit or togetherness and before I try to dissect the performances to date, let’s look at the squad Kenny has put together since being appointed.

 

Kenny released 2011 goalkeepers, Richard Brush and Ryan Thompson, both of whom had played competently following the outstanding Alan Mannus  departure to St Johnstone in July 2011.  He signed Swedish U21 keeper Oscar Janssen from Tottenman (on loan) and made him the Number 1 for the start of the season.   He also released key defender and club captain Dan Murray.  Murray may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but defensively when Murray was absent, Rovers conceded more goals than when he was playing.  Kenny however deemed him surplus to requirements and brought in Colin Hawkins as player/coach.   Right back Pat Flynn was also released (joining St Pats).   He also signed Conor Powell (from Sligo), Killian Brennan (from Bohs), Daryl Kavanagh (from St Pats), Kerrea Gilbert (from English team Yeovil Town) and Aaron Greene (from Sligo) and despite also losing Pat Sullivan (emigration) and with Enda Stevens having left to join Aston Villa during the last days of O’Neill’s tenure, it was felt Rovers should  still consolidate their position as the team to beat during 2012.

 

What has happened has been a litany of points and matches thrown away.  Early League games are always a bit hit and miss in terms of form, so it was with a degree of tolerance that a shaky 2-1 opening day win away at Drogheda was greeted (Twigg  (who else?) scoring both) by fans.  A routine 3-1 win over promoted Monaghan United  (despite going behind) was followed by a very shaky 1-1 draw down in Cork (Conor Powell  sent off) with Twigg scoring an injury time equaliser , but three performances in, despite 7 points, the team hadn’t performed like defending champions in any of the games.  The defence looked unsure and Janssen in particular seemed to lack presence and his howler for the Cork goal was a very ominous sign.

 

Shelbourne were dispatched 4-0 in Tallaght but were helped by the dismissal in the opening minutes of Shels’ keeper and by an abject Shels defensive display thereafter, so the 4-0 win still wasn’t the hallmark of champions, nor was the laboured 2-0 win over an inexperienced and goal-shy Bohemians (Twigg finally breaking their resistance with a sublime opener).   What happened next, Rovers 6th League game had the fans already shaking their heads at the new Manager.

 

Rovers travelled to Richmond Park on Good Friday to play St Patrick’s Athletic.  Conor Powell’s suspension saw Killian Brennan play at left back and by half an hour, Pats were 3-0 up with all three goals coming down Brennan’s side as he proved incapable (unwilling?) of performing the most basic of defensive duties.  Ken Oman grabbed a goal back before the break, but Pats scored two more goals in the second half, the fifth following more slapstick from Janssen in goal.   Brennan was left on the park for 80 minutes despite one of the singularly worst individual performances I’ve seen as a Rovers fan and the defence played like strangers.  Rovers fans didn’t even have a pub open that night to drown their sorrows, a 1-5 defeat to Pats hurt and it hurt badly.

 

Luckily for Kenny, a Dundalk team in disarray were next up and the champions put the Pats debacle to the side with a 6-0 win, with Daryl Kavanagh getting the 6th after an impressive cameo as sub, but he had to be content with a substitute’s place in the next game away to Bray.   Midfielder Conor McCormack was asked to play right back by Kenny and it was no surprise that Bray targeted the Carlingford man’s lack of experience there as Bray left winger Kieran Marty Watters scored both goals from that area to put Bray 2-0 up at half time.

 

Daryl Kavanagh’s introduction as a second half sub transformed Rovers as he set up both goals (for Ronan Finn and Twigg) but despite that impressive fightback to draw 2-2, Rovers overall form was still giving massive cause for concern and another mediocre 1-1 home draw with Derry (Twigg yet again) did little to lift the Rovers fans’ mood or revise their opinion of Kenny to date.   Worse was to follow however.

 

Kavanagh got a well deserved start in the next game at home to UCD and he netted a superb goal from outside the box to put Rovers in control before half time at 2-0 (Dennehy having opened the scoring).  15 minutes into the second half however, Conor McCormack (still at right back with Gilbert injured) dived into a tackle to give away a penalty and College reduced the deficit.  From the kick off, the outstanding Kavanagh made something out of nothing only for Twigg to fire wide from Kavanagh’s cross.  To the disbelief and anger of the fans, Kavanagh himself (and Twigg, I saw his reaction for myself), Kenny withdrew Kavanagh to bring on Brennan and leave Twigg up front on his own.  This decision clearly handed UCD the initiative and Rovers chances of scoring disappeared as Kenny tried to keep the mighty UCD at bay.  Not surprisingly, with UCD having monopolised possession since the Kavanagh substitution, they grabbed a 90th minute equaliser, the game finished 2-2 with a very angry reaction among Rovers fans towards Kenny for his baffling and ridiculous change on the hour mark.

 

As I said, worse was to follow.  South African keeper Reyaad Pieterse was given the nod ahead of the confidence-drained (not that he had much in the first place) Janssen and yet another abject defensive performance and none too inspiring League debut for Pieterse saw Sligo Rovers defeat the lifeless champions 3-0.  The defending champions were a shadow of the team of barely 6 months previous.  Drogheda were defeated 3-1 in Tallaght next time out but this proved another false dawn as the champions were then unable to score against financially strapped Monaghan (who would soon lose their League status) in a 0-0 draw and before the Euro 2012 break, two more points were thrown away against Cork City.  Twigg scored a superb header with 20 minutes remaining, but Cork broke away in the dying minutes to equalise with the out of position Gilbert and the ageing Hawkins badly at fault for the equaliser.  Cue more anger and exasperation among the home support as everybody tried to enjoy the European Championships and reflect on the League of Ireland season so far.

 

With the Euros done and dusted, the break didn’t seem to improve Rovers’ defensive calamaties as two awful goals were conceded to Shelbourne, but that man Twigg (where would Kenny be without his star striker?) weighed in with another couple and the Hoops won an exciting tussle 3-2 at The Graveyard, but it’s been more strife, anger and disbelief since, beginning with a shambolic, listless, rudderless and embarrassing defeat by Bohemians young lads in Dalymount by 4 goals to nil.  We thought defensively it couldn’t get any worse, but it did that night.

 

We expected a reaction against Pats at Tallaght next up, we got it to a large extent with Sives breaking the deadlock late on but a rare miss by Twigg proved costly as a poor clearance by Dennehy gifted Pats possession and a tame enough cross was missed by Oman and Powell, allowing former Hoop Pat Flynn to steal in at the far post to score an injury time equaliser.  It was still happening, time and time again, players switching off at key moments, poor positioning, poor decision making, poor everything, another two points tossed away.  Four more points tossed away in the next two games as well, another uninspiring effort at Oriel Park (1-1 with sub Kavanagh equalising) and sandwiched in between the Champions League Qualifiers (more of that to follow), yet another home draw, 0-0 (with Twigg suspended) against Bray and despite a clean sheet, Bray might’ve sneaked the win with Jason Byrne shaving a post late on.  

 

So to the European games, prematurely and stupidly over already for 2012.  The draw could’ve been alot harder on Rovers, drawing FK Ekranas from Lithuania and the first leg in Tallaght drew a decent crowd of nearly 5,000 through the turnstiles.  Despite a clean sheet, Ekranas didn’t play with much attacking conviction and it really was a case of what should’ve been as Rovers squandered some great second half chances in an admittedly vastly improved overall performance.  I asked myself afterwards where was this sort of display since March?  The team was solid, compact and carved out chances and they  played with plenty of intensity and despite the 0-0 scoreline, I was very hopeful we would qualify in Lithuania. That was before the Bray scoreless draw however, so by the second leg, my hope had somewhat ebbed.

 

So it proved.  For 44 minutes the tempo of the second leg barely got above 2nd gear as Rovers had plenty of possession but did little with it and with the exception of Janssen making an excellent save after Powell yet again got caught out of position, I reckoned an increase of urgency in the second half would see us home, but we got caught napping again at a free kick down their right and a cross resulted in a free header in a huge gap between central defence and left back. Janssen hadn’t a hope of saving it, right on the half time blow, Ekranas 1, Rovers 0.

 

Rovers started the second half fairly well and had a couple of half chances, but when Ekranas scored from long range not long after the hour mark, it was curtains, yet it took another 10 minutes for Kenny to finally give Twigg some support up front, with Kavanagh finally being brought on, but by then it was already too late, shoulders were drooping, Ekranas didn’t have to do an awful lot to maintain their lead with their keeper having no saves of note to make and Janssen in the Rovers goal making several excellent saves, which was indicative of Rovers performance on the night.  It wasn’t until the 93rd out of 94 minutes that Ekranas coughed up a chance, with a soft handball giving Rovers a penalty which was coolly converted by McCabe, but it was too little too late.  Sives 94th minute header that went harmlessly wide was the final sting of a dying wasp and 7 months after Rovers 6th and last Europa League group game, having played 12 European games in 2011, their European journey in 2012 was over with a whimper after two matches.  Dreadful.

 

Where to next for the Rovers board?  It’s my opinion that Kenny should’ve been given the bullet after the Bohemians mauling.  Yes the team collectively on the night was a disgrace, but this was just the culmination of a team sinking fast under a dithering, confused and leaderless management.  The manager sets the tone, there has been no tone with Rovers this year and Kenny stands indicted for that.  His signings, bar Daryl Kavanagh have flopped and in one or two cases have demonstrated a clear lack of interest or pride in the famous hooped shirt.  Fans can spot this, there is no hiding place on a football pitch and non-triers or prima donnas are easily spotted and that Kenny persists with them is equally damning.

 

Yes he will be entitled to a pay off if his 3 year contract is terminated after a mere 6 or 7 months, but in my opinion the Rovers board should write off the loss, admit they got it wrong and try get a more suitable and knowledgeable man in to resurrect the players pride and morale (those who care anyhow) and bring back some hope to the Rovers fans in what to date has been a hopeless season.  We don’t have a divine right to win week in week out, we don’t have divine right to league titles, but we do have a right (and the members of Shamrock Rovers certainly have this right) to expect a well paid manager to look like he knows what he’s doing and to try to have an alternative plan if the original plan isn’t coming off.  We do have a right to expect 100% effort from the players and 100% effort and passion from the manager, this hasn’t been the case with an honourable few exceptions on the pitch and we know well who they are.

 

The growing number of people calling for Kenny’s head cannot (and probably will not) be ignored for much longer.  I said weeks ago this would get worse before it gets better and I’ve seen nothing recently to change that view.   I hope the board show some guts in doing the right thing and soon.

 

We’ll keep the Green flag flying high.

 

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