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From 'peak Rovers' to Hoop Dreams: Shamrock Rovers' long road back to the top

Author and Hoops fan Macdara Ferris reflects on a long nine years for the newly-crowned League of Ireland champions.

Shamrock Rovers boss Stephen Bradley with Gary O'Neill after a recent game.
Shamrock Rovers boss Stephen Bradley with Gary O'Neill after a recent game.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

IT IS NINE years since Shamrock Rovers last won the league title.

Back then the talk in Tallaght and around the League of Ireland was that the Hoops would dominate for years to come but didn’t turn out that way. However, after nearly a decade, the league trophy is back in Dublin 24 once again adorned with green and white ribbons.

Peak Rovers

As a Hoops fan I think of autumn 2011 as peak Shamrock Rovers. The club debuted in the Europa League, there was the mad celebrations when Rovers took a second-half lead in White Hart Lane, and they retained the title in dramatic fashion with a late winner away to UCD to secure their 17th league title.

That night I was amongst the Rovers fans who clambered out onto the pitch in Belfield in celebration and sung not just about winning two-in-a-row but about three, four and five-in-a-row. Playing in front of sellout crowds, the time was ripe in Tallaght for Hoops domination, but it turned out it would be Dundalk that would dominate the rest of decade.

Now I’m not asking for any sympathy from supporters of other clubs as the lows since that last title success in 2011 never reached the depths of the post-Milltown wilderness years, of examinership, relegation or high court battles with the GAA over Tallaght Stadium.

However after the highs of the Michael O’Neill managerial era, supporters suffered through uninspiring spells under Stephen Kenny, Trevor Croly and Pat Fenlon.

Managerial merry-go-round (2012 to 2016)

It seems bizarre looking at what Stephen Kenny has done in his career, both before and after Rovers, as to how it just went so badly wrong for him in Tallaght in 2012. A series of heavy league defeats (5-1 to St. Pat’s, 3-0 to Sligo Rovers and 4-0 to Bohs) put Kenny under real pressure by the time Europe came around.

I had enjoyed European away days in Tallinn, Copenhagen, Belgrade, London, Thessaloniki and Kazan in 2011. So it was a bitter pill to swallow being eliminated from Europe at the very first hurdle in embarrassing fashion by Lithuanian side Ekranas in Panevezys. Time ran out on Kenny at Rovers soon after following another Dublin derby defeat to Bohs and the Hoops missed out on European football.

Trevor Croly took over in the dugout in 2013 and did win three trophies in his first season – dubbed the treble minor of Setanta Sports Cup, League Cup and the Leinster Senior Cup but once again the Hoops missed out on Europe. Pat ‘Nutsy’ Fenlon was next in the managerial hotseat and while he steadied the Shamrock Rovers ship securing back-to-back European qualifications he couldn’t inspire the players to mount a title challenge and didn’t inspire the fans with the style of football.

Slow burn Bradley era (2016 to date)

After initially serving as caretaker boss, Stephen Bradley was appointed as the Head Coach with the Hoops in 2017 and began the slow process of creating a squad to challenge Dundalk. Patience with Bradley ran out for many supporters in 2018 in a period when Rovers won just three out of 15 games. This was also the time of eight derby matches against Bohemians when the Hoops avoided defeat just the once.

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Rovers supporters left Tallaght to the sound of Bohs fans singing, ‘There is only one Stephen Bradley’, when Bohs scored a 99th minute winner in April that year.

In June, a banner in the stands saying, ‘It isn’t working. Enough is enough’, was unveiled on a night that Dundalk won 5-2 in Tallaght.

However, Bradley was backed fully by the board and suffered only two defeats in the subsequent 15 league games that season. Each year European qualification was secured and in those games in Europe, the Hoops acquitted themselves well – four wins, four draws and five defeats. The platform for success was built off a sound defensive setup, with the return of Alan Mannus and the partnership between Pico Lopes and Lee Grace crucial to that stability.

Last season Rovers keep a club record of 21 clean sheets from 36 league games. The crowds flocked to the expanded 8,000-seater Tallaght Stadium with fans pleased to go each fortnight to see Bradley’s possession-based passing team. With the addition of Jack Byrne the final piece of the jigsaw was in place to bring major trophies back to Tallaght.

Shamrock Rovers silverware

In 2019 Rovers raced out to an early 13-point lead over Dundalk only to be overhauled ahead of the mid-season break and finish runners-up. The FAI Cup campaign was an absolute delight. In the semi-final, Rovers travelled to Dalymount Park where they hadn’t won since 2017 but beat Bohs 2-0 to make it to their first FAI Cup final since 2010. In a dramatic game against Dundalk played over 120 minutes, the Hoops prevailed on penalties finally winning that elusive 25th FAI Cup crown and ending a 32-year cup famine.

Having secured that trophy, the belief was they could go on to win the league in 2020. The Hoops dominated from the off, winning five out of five before the COVID-19 break, including a classic encounter where they defeated Dundalk 3-2 in Tallaght that many count as one of their favourite games in the venue since its opening in 2009.

The shortened season may tarnish the title in some people’s eyes but not at Rovers. The only disappointment for Hoops fans is that they haven’t been able to watch their team in person in the last few months as they have blitzed teams all around them to secure their 18th league title.

I’ve been one of the lucky ones to be able to watch the Hoops from the pressbox since the return of the league. The hope is that when European football returns to Tallaght next season, it will be in front of a full house and that Rovers can make the most of the champions route to have a prolonged campaign in Europe, just as they did in that magic 2011 season.

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About the author:

Macdara Ferris

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