Written by Phelim Warren (@freewheeler12)
As Longford Town come to Tallaght Stadium for this EA Sports Cup Quarter-final, what can or should the visitors expect?
If Rovers’ previous round victory over “Bohs” is anything to go by, we can reasonably expect rookie manager Stephen Bradley to name a strong starting eleven. Usually this competition is a good opportunity for a manager to give some players a rest or blood young lads, or give fringe players some game time. Bradley however named a strong team, while Bohemians made several changes as Rovers won 3-1.
Why Bradley did this, in my opinion anyhow was to try and kick start his stuttering team into a bit of form and consistency after an alarming start to the league campaign.
While Rovers had no real right to expect a serious title tilt against triple Champions Dundalk or their main rival Cork City, it was expected that the signings of Ronan Finn, Michael O’Connor, and Darren Meenan from Dundalk, Dave McAllister, Graham Burke, Roberto Lopes and Paul Corry would see Rovers competing at least for a European spot or a long overdue FAI Cup win. Last year’s blooding of the likes of Sean Boyd, Trevor Clarke, James Doona and Aaron Dobbs gave Rovers fans enough grounds for enthusiasm ahead of this campaign.
That enthusiasm however has quickly evaporated and as I write, the pressure is already reaching fever pitch on Bradley with a record of 4 wins, 1 draw and 6 defeats. With three teams for relegation this year, this sort of record makes for worrying reading for “Hoops” fans.
A quick summary of the eleven league games to date shows a consistent pattern of indiscipline, softly conceded goals and a clear uncertainty (in my views of the games ) of his best starting XI from Bradley.
A brave opening defeat to Dundalk may have yielded a point had substitute Graham Burke not lost his head minutes after scoring by getting himself sent off. A 2-1 derby win over the “Gypsies” next up was satisfactory if nervy but then followed a really disappointing 0-1 home loss to Derry City (goal scored by the sadly passed Ryan McBride).
Next up was a 2-1 away win in Galway and again, despite giving Cork City a decent game, two dreadful mistakes by keeper Tomer Cenchinski and centre half Dave Webster, who gave away a penalty, saw “Hoops” fans cursing the silly goals again.
There would be added indiscipline away to St. Pats next up. Winning 1-0 to an early Gary Shaw goal and in control, left back Sean Heaney picked up two needless yellow cards to completely change the course of the game with Pats winning 2-1.
Although Rovers then beat Harps 3-2, they squandered a 2-0 half time lead with an abject second half and only Simon Madden’s 89th minute winner papered over the self destructing cracks.
A really awful 1-2 loss away to Drogheda in terms of the performance and set up of the team (with both “Drogs” goals following set pieces) had the fans’ patience with Bradley wearing thin but despite a battling 1-0 win over Sligo the week of Milltown’s 30 year anniversary, the knives were being reached for if not quite sharpened by games ten and eleven of the campaign.
Another early lead out in Bray was squandered due to more indiscipline and stupidity as Rovers capitulated 4-2 and last Friday despite a reasonable first half, another woeful second 45′ saw Limerick equalise in the 90th minute.
So it seems to this observer that Bradley is struggling to implement on-field discipline, proper defensive organisation, reaction to opposition goals and knowing his strongest XI.
Of the new signings, Finn is struggling to adapt to being captain and has been badly out of form despite occasional flashes of quality we all know he has. Meenan has struggled to make an impact and the Rovers central defensive pair of Webster and Devine have been exposed by pacy strikers. Roberto Lopes impressed on Friday in Devine’s absence and he may be the answer there.
The form of Trevor Clarke however has been a real shining light for Rovers at left back. His bravery, skillfulness, honesty and relentlessness combined with Luke Byrne’s return should see Rovers push on and score more goals in the coming weeks. However, Rovers are still also crying out for a goal poacher since the incomparable Gary Twigg left in 2012.
I badly want Bradley to succeed but the omens aren’t good and as we know, it’s now a results game. The club is doing tremendous work at schoolboy level and in the Community. The marketing of Rovers home matches has also improved appreciably. A wonderful new training base at Roadstone has received rave reviews. The bricks are certainly being cemented impressively. It is however the first team’s results that will show if all these foundations are sound. Bad results, lack of progress and a dabble with relegation will cut no ice with the fans even if schoolboy success and a brilliant training facility are thriving.
Director of Sport, Stephen McPhail will need to work effectively with the board to try and turn Rovers poor first third of the season around. Whether that means Bradley leaving or getting some experienced help in the dugout remains to be seen. Even a first FAI Cup win in thirty years may not do.
Longford Town will probably fancy their chances and with good reason. But beware the wounded animal and Bradley and the team are undoubtedly wounded. Even though the League Cup isn’t high on the priority list of the fans, another home defeat will pour fuel on the fire slowly engulfing Stephen Bradley. He will demand a reaction as will the fans so this game carries probably more importance than it otherwise would.
A competitive game surely awaits us.