Longread: How the Hoops won their 21st title and secured the four-in-a-row
Macdara Ferris takes a detailed look at how Shamrock Rovers won the league to claim a famous fourth consecutive title.
“Four-in-a-row, we won four-in-a-row” is a song that has been proudly sung by Shamrock Rovers supporters since 1987 and the last days of Milltown. This past year, with the superstition that floats around football, it wasn’t one that was heard as often in Tallaght Stadium.
There was no such restraint on Friday night though come the final whistle after their team's 2-0 away win over St. Patrick’s Athletic.
It was a victroy that secured Shamrock Rovers the title and earn this current Hoops squad a place alongside Rovers’ famous 1980s side who were the first to win four consecutive league titles.
The ‘four-in-a-row’ song was one that sustained the club’s supporters during the bleak long wilderness years in the early 2000s prior to getting to Tallaght. Over countless seasons shuttling from ground to ground, renting off their rivals, all the Hoops fans had was that history.
One of the lowest points for the club came two decades ago in Richmond Park when Rovers, then a temporary tenant of St. Pat’s, were evicted from the ground in September 2003 following crowd trouble. The Hoops subsequently had to play a home game in Cork.
So there is some serendipity with Rovers securing their fourth league title in a row in Richmond Park on Friday in the venue where the club was at such a low ebb 20 years ago. The party will continue in their game in Cork this Bank Holiday Monday but just how did this Rovers team win the club’s 21st league crown?
A recap of matchday v St. Patrick's Athletic on an historic night in Inchicore 👇 pic.twitter.com/222NKRvk5I— Shamrock Rovers FC (@ShamrockRovers) October 29, 2023
Worst start for two decades
The fact that the Hoops wrapped up the league title with two games to spare is remarkable given that Rovers had their worst start to a campaign for two decades. The Hoops led their first two matches in the 89th minute, only to come away with a point on both occasions.
In Sligo in their opening match Graham Burke had given the Hoops a first half lead but Pico Lopes’ red card in the 67th minute proved costly as the Bit O’ Red equalised in the fourth minute of injury time. It was the same story in the next game as ill-discipline cost the Hoops.
Once again Rovers led through Burke but then had Lee Grace and Dan Cleary sent off by referee Sean Grant for sets of yellow cards, and Drogheda got a last minute equaliser
It was a really poor decision by the official (for second Cleary yellow). I think the referee lost control of the game and that is not good.
Next up, in their first home game of season, the Hoops lost 2-1 to Derry City. It was Rovers’ first league loss in Dublin 24 in 648 days since Sligo Rovers had won in May 2021.
It ended a run of 29 home league games without defeat (a run that included 24 wins) - the club’s best sequence since 1966.
The following match saw the Hoops play out a 4-4 draw in Tallaght with Cork City. The visitors were 4-2 ahead in the 69th minute but Rovers came back with Sean Hoare’s headed goal in the seventh minute of injury time earning them a point.
It was a really strange game. It looked early on that we were going to go on and win quite comfortably and then we gave up really poor goals. It was four goals (conceded) but it could have been six and we could have scored seven or eight. We know that our defending was nowhere near our level and our standard.
With injuries and suspensions at the back it meant Bradley continued to deploy Gary O’Neill as an auxiliary centre-half.
I was playing centre back and the ball came across the box for their fourth goal, it hit Lee [Grace] and Dylan [Watts] and fell to them and they tapped it in. Lee was on the ground and he looked up at me and we were like 'what is going on here?'. We can't be conceding four goals to anyone, let alone a team who has just come up.
It is an easy thing for me to say here but genuinely there is no panic. Everyone is very calm, the manager is really calm with us. He is saying 'relax. We will be fine.' Performances aren't a million miles off.
The result left Rovers on three points from four games, seven behind Derry City and in the relegation play-off zone with headlines in one national newspaper reading ‘Even if Shamrock Rovers eventually get their act together, it may already be too late for title hopes’.
It wouldn’t get much better in the next two games as the Hoops only picked up two more points. First there was a scoreless stalemate in Tolka Park – Rovers’ first clean sheet of the season.
It was memorable for a video surfacing after of Sean Hoare talking with some frustrated Hoops fans after the final whistle.
People are paying good money to see you play and you want to reward them with good results. We worked our balls off for the eight weeks of pre-season and we couldn't get a win in those first few games. It would have been worse if we had been playing poorly but we were playing really well. The stats were backing that up and the manager and ourselves could see we were playing well. There was no panic on our part.
I really like where we are performance wise. I understand people's frustration with the points (four from the 15 available). It is not what we want either. I understand that people react to results but our job is to look at the overall picture and what we are doing. I know we are right there.
Next up was 2-2 draw with St. Patrick’s Athletic in Tallaght which the Hoops should have won having led with two minutes to go. It all meant that with one sixth of the campaign complete, they only had five points - their worst start to the league since 2003.
So what was the sense of Rovers’ performances six games into the season?
Rovers’ goals versus expected goals (both scored and conceded) would reflect that results haden’t matched performances on the pitch.
The Hoops scored nine times but their expected goals from the chances they created was 11.9 (the best xG of any team in the league at that point) showing they were creating plenty of good goal scoring opportunities. Meanwhile they had let in ten goals while their expected goals conceded was only 6.9.
The attacking stats had Rovers as the top team across a range of categories - shots, crosses, touches in the box, 1-v-1 and dribbles. In the passing categories, the Hoops were best across overall passes, key and smart passes.
But they still hadn’t won a match.
The first victory
It took till the last day of March for Rovers to get their first win of the campaign. It would be the start of a run of nine wins and a draw. That first victory – a 4-0 win in Oriel Park - enabled Alan Mannus claim the club’s all-time all-competition clean sheet record outright, moving by Alan O’Neill’s 120 mark.
“We are staying up” rings out from the away end in Oriel Park as Shamrock Rovers go 4-0 up pic.twitter.com/LiCCL4aI3P— Macdara Ferris (@macdarabueller) March 31, 2023
The Hoops beat Bohs 2-0 in Dalymount Park on Good Friday and rounded off the Easter period beating UCD 3-0 – so from no wins to three in 11 days with nine goals scored and three clean sheets. Rovers were beginning to motor as they moved into third in the table but were seven points off top spot.
It was a big performance from us in front of the sold out crowd (in Dalymount). We were brilliant in the second half. It was a big win for us. Our fans were so loud; it was just a brilliant atmosphere and it was nice to get a derby win.
From Mannus to Pohls
A crucial match came at the start of May when Rovers won 2-0 in Derry in a game where Alan Mannus went off with a dislocated and fractured finger.
His replacement Leon Pohls came in and on his 26th birthday and in the week he got married, saved Ben Doherty’s late spotkick.
Mannus would be missed but Pohls stepped up and silenced doubters within the Rovers fan base. He would keep seven clean sheets from the dozen league games he played in.
I had to have an operation to put the finger back into place and clean out the bits of bone. It has healed but the position now is at a 45 degree angle and I can't bend or straighten it anymore. It seems that is the way that it is going to be for the rest of my life.
I knew I was going to be out for a long time and I spoke with Leon and I said to him 'you are ready to play, there is no doubt about it my mind’. I really am pleased how he did.
Leon Pohls comes off bench to save penalty on his 26th birthday as the Hoops make it five away clean sheets in a row. Rovers have let in just two goals on their travels this season.— Macdara Ferris (@macdarabueller) May 1, 2023
Rovers move up into second place above Derry City. https://t.co/ANAHF9xcy4
The Hoops went top in May with a 3-0 in the UCD Bowl going top two points clear of Derry City while early season pace setters Bohemians dropped to third. It was Rovers’ fifth consecutive away victory, with each win coming with a clean sheet.
We knew we had a chance of going top if we won. That was a little bit of extra motivation to perform against UCD.
However the Hoops were knocked off top spot when their 13 game unbeaten streak came to an end after a 2-1 home defeat to Drogheda United – however that would be their last home loss before they secured the title this weekend.
Trevor Clarke picked up an injury that necessitated an operation that meant he wouldn’t start a game until September. Injuries later on hindered the Hoops attacking threat as Neil Farrugia would miss all of June and July while Jack Byrne's season was effectively over at the end of June.
It would be back-to-back defeats as eight man Rovers lost their next game in Cork 1-0. Sean Grant, who had sent two Rovers players off in Drogheda earlier in the season, brandished three cards in Turner’s Cross with Sean Hoare, Johnny Kenny and Richie Towell all receiving their marching orders by the 64th minute.
Grant would officiate the following week but hasn’t taken charge of a League of Ireland games since then.
It was probably a bit overwhelming. We were all surprised having three sent off. I didn't know how to react to it. When they scored (five minutes from time), it was a killer blow.
Rovers returned to the top of the table though in the next game with a 2-0 win over Dundalk in Tallaght and would win four of the next five without conceding a goal – including a crucial 1-0 home win against Derry City.
Their only dropped points were in Dalymount Park where they were 2-0 up and cruising but conceding two goals in six minutes to draw 2-2.
That Markus Poom goal 😍 https://t.co/Lqp2mNkrpz— Macdara Ferris (@macdarabueller) June 24, 2023
Their 3-0 win in Sligo in early June was Rovers’ last away league game until last Friday’s win in Inchicore and a subsequent run of five draws and one loss (against Dundalk 2-0) meant they never were able to pull clear of their title rivals. That loss in Dundalk was their final league defeat before securing the league title.
Trouble in July
Rovers went through July without a win and scoring only one goal – the worst goalscoring run of Stephen Bradley’s seven year stint at the club. They lost all four European matches and domestically were dumped out of the cup in Oriel Park.
However, they only played one league game that month - a scoreless draw with Drogheda – and so were still in a solid position in their quest for four-in-a-row four points clear at the top of the table with 11 league games remaining.
We've been doubted before and I'm sure we'll be doubted again but come and see us in November and see where we are. We haven't had the results we wanted during July but we have to understand that the level we are playing at and the expectations that we've brought on ourselves. We’ve no divine right to win any game - domestically or in Europe.
An injury time Shelbourne equaliser in Tolka Park prevented Rovers adding to the three points they earned the previous week at home to Cork City after their early European exit.
Now our full interest goes on the league as we look to win four-in-a-row. It is something that only one team has done before. We’ve heard about that Rovers four-in-a-row team and we see a lot of those players supporting Rovers in Tallaght. We want to make our own history at the club. With this team, we have the chance to do that this season.
Rovers’ next two home wins would effectively knock Dundalk and Bohemians out of the title race and leave Bohs without a win in Tallaght for four years.
The Hoops dug out a crucial point from the 1-1 draw in Derry in mid-September which was a massive step towards the title. Graham Burke’s penalty equaliser five minutes from time left the Hoops four points clear of the Candystripes with six games remaining.
You can take confidence going out and beating Bohs 3-0 and playing well but you can also do that when you grind out a result like in Derry when you have to maybe show a different side of your game.
The Hoops hit a hurdle in their next match as they couldn’t break down a UCD side as the 0-0 draw relegated the Students. However, Rovers came off the pitch having extended their lead as Derry lost in Sligo.
As the Candystripes title challenge faltered, St. Patrick’s Athletic looked to be the only team who could stop the Hoops. They were six points back with a home game in hand against Drogheda United but then they managed to lose that match.
We have been listening to this for six weeks now - there is four teams in it, there is three teams in it. Five points with five games to go, we'll take that.
After beating Shels at home 1-0, the Hoops had a three week break due to international fixtures, FAI Cup semi-finals and weather issues but it didn’t knock them off their stride.
The 5-0 win against Drogheda United on 20 October had the Tallaght faithful singing “here we go, four in a row”.
The Boynesiders had been a bogey team for Rovers recently with the Hoops without a win against United in their last six league matches but since Drogheda got the win in Dublin 24 in May, Rovers won their next eight at home in the league – a club record in the Tallaght era.
Markus Poom on rocky Rovers start to season as recent results leave Hoops on brink of history: ‘At start of the season, it was hard for us to get results. It wasn’t tense. It wasn’t anxious. It was ‘just get your head down, work hard and the results will https://t.co/KjaOzUjxw2pic.twitter.com/dDAmMLP0ik— Extratime.com (@ExtratimeNews) October 27, 2023
The Hoops went to Richmond Park last Friday knowing a victory would win them the league.
By defeating Pat’s 2-0 - thanks to goals off the bench from Aaron Greene and Graham Burke – they got over the line as Hoops Head Coach Stephen Bradley became the first manager to win four league titles in a row.
Quotes used in this article are from interviews carried out by reporter throughout the season.
That seals it.— Shamrock Rovers FC (@ShamrockRovers) October 27, 2023
Even if Shamrock Rovers eventually get their act together, it may already be too late for title hopes.