Wednesday 8 February 2023 Dublin: 4°C
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# Airtricity League
Column: Shelbourne doing it their way, and doing just fine
Heaven knows Drumcondra needed a good news story or two, writes Niall Kelly.

OK, HANDS UP. Who would’ve predicted that Shelbourne would be top of the table after the opening three weeks of the season?

After we strip the numbers of soothsayers, Briogáid Dearg die-hards and bare-faced liars, I’m guessing that there wouldn’t be too many more hands left to count.

But there they are, on merit, even if they do have to share the honour with the less surprising bedfellows of Sligo, St Pat’s and their opponents this evening, champions Shamrock Rovers.

Their bright start is no fluke of the fixture computer; home to Sligo, away to Bohs, home to Derry, away to Rovers is as tough a run of fixtures as you’re likely to come across. But set aside the late lapse in concentration which allowed Sligo to scramble home an injury-time equaliser and they’d be out on their own, the only team with a 100% start to the season.

Heaven knows Drumcondra needed a good news story or two. The question now is, how long can it last?

On the basis of their first three games, there’s no reason to believe that this is an ephemera to be savoured while it lasts. Alan Mathews may not be able to compete with the league’s big boys when it comes to quality and depth of squad, but Shels’ rough diamonds are doing just fine.

Philly Hughes can walk into any team in the league for as long he continues his golden touch in front of goal, while Paddy Kavanagh is already becoming one of the most shrewd signings of the off-season, finally living up to the glimpses of promise he showed at Bray and looking a far cry from the player who faded into insignificance out in Tallaght.

More important is the manner in which they’ve played. Relentless work and mental strength are worn as badges of honour, as they should be. They’re an intelligent side too, as they showed against Bohs two weeks ago when they boxed clever and chose their counter-attacks wisely before sapping the energy from any possible comeback.

Winning ugly

Tonight presents a new challenge, though Mathews will surely have reminded his players that Rovers have hardly bolted from the traps and are still showing all the signs of adjustment that are to be expected when a team brings in a new manager and four or five new faces to the first team.

For those in green and white, there’s plenty of room for improvement. Rovers drifted out of the game in the second half against Drogheda, looked stale for large parts of the win against Monaghan, and struggled to break down Cork City last weekend.

The chants of “that’s why we’re champions” that greeted Gary Twigg’s late, late equaliser in the Cross last weekend may have been justifed, but grinding out ugly wins will only suffice for so long. More than anyone else, Stephen Kenny will know that they need to be the ones setting the pace, even at this early stage.

After making their way through to the final four of the Setanta Sports Cup earlier this week, Sligo Rovers and Derry will be ready to pounce on any slip by the champions. Ian Baraclough commented again this week on his team’s positive attitude and  spirit, but he must be longing for a performance that doesn’t leave him gnawing at his fingernails as the clock ticks away.

Monaghan are no mugs though, nor are Cork who make the long trip to the Brandywell tonight. Tommy Dunne’s men will be hoping that they have exhausted all those painful early-season reminders of how cruel the top flight can be, though a point tonight would be more than acceptable in the long term.

Bohs are another team in need of an early shot in the arm, particularly up front where they’ve managed just one goal in their last six games. St Pat’s on the other hand have conceded just once in their three league games. It could be a long afternoon for the Phibsboro faithful on Sunday.

Airtricity League fixtures (Friday, 7.45pm unless stated)

Premier Division:

  • Bray Wanderers v Drogheda United
  • Derry City v Cork City
  • Dundalk v UCD
  • Monaghan United v Sligo Rovers (Friday, 8pm)
  • Shamrock Rovers v Shelbourne (Friday, 8pm)
  • Bohemian FC v St Patrick’s Athletic (Sunday, 4pm)

First Division:

  • Limerick v SD Galway
  • Mervue United v Athlone Town
  • Longford Town v Waterford United (Saturday, 7.30pm)
  • Finn Harps v Wexford Youths (Saturday, 7.45pm)

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