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Rovers return as Champions..

November 8, 2018

A packed Showgrounds on a fantastic night for football in the North West saw Sligo Rovers secure the First Division title in front of a sea of red and white.

It may not have been pretty on the night, but the quality of fare didn’t matter to the five thousand Sligo faithful as the bit o’red secured a happy return to the Eircom League Premier Division after six seasons in the First Division.

The celebrations on the field lasted for a long time after captain, Michael McNamara accepted the trophy from League Chairman, Athlone’s Paddy McCaul. After that, it was pure genius. Sheer joy as the celebrations were a frenzied blend of chaos and euphoria as fans joined the team doing their lap of honour.

Fire-crackers seared the night sky, cries of Rovers, Rovers were heard in Carrowroe, as locals from near and far lapped up the fruits of victory.

Back on earth, we reflected on what ultimately was a poor game. Rovers were without their talismanic midfielder, Conor O’Grady who was serving the first of a two-match suspension but it was a straight-forward decision as to his replacement with Faz Kudozovic coming back from suspension in centre field.

The pre-match build up all week pointed towards a festival of football for what was the largest Showgrounds crowd for some time, but as is so often the case in big matches, after a very promising opening from a Rovers perspective, the first half became a scrappy affair with an impromptu Mexican wave, perhaps being the highlight.

 The visitors hadn’t read the script as it was Athlone who hit the first shot in anger after five minutes when a Murphy free into the box allowed Skelly to take advantage of a Low error to get on the ball and fire a curling shot, to the far left and over.

After this early scare, the bit o’red pressed forward and on seven minutes, good work by Foley on the right gave him space to snap in a quick cross that Flannery headed narrowly wide.

On ten minutes, Ian Rossiter linked well with McTiernan on the edge of the box, cutting inside and firing a low shot past Murphy, but the post denied Rovers the lead. In the blink of an eye, the home side were in the Athlone box again, this time desperate defending saving the day.

Rovers were varying the lines of attack, using the flanks, playing the patient game, but when the gaps presented themselves, the long ball from O’Hara was dispatched. On seventeen minutes, it was O’Hara’s long clearance cleverly flicked on by Flannery putting McTiernan into space, but Murphy was equal to McTiernan’s low drive.

An injury to the unfortunate Graham O’Keefe (broken ankle) midway through the half, gave the fans a few minutes to get a Mexican wave going. It got the 4000 plus in better spirits but unfortunately, the break didn’t raise the pace of the game.

With the game getting scrappy, Athlone reminded the home crowd that there was two teams in this game, looking like they could do damage on the counter-attack with the best chance falling on thirty three minutes for Skelly who forced a save from O’Hara.

Perhaps it was the pressure of the occasion, but neither side were able to raise the standard as the game got bogged down in midfield. A flurry of aggression by Foley as the clocked counted down almost put Flannery through, however, the Athlone defence had long since settled down and cleared their lines leaving the sides level at the break.

The second half saw Cretaro and Rossiter switch position and the home side looked lively down the right. But it was the Low on the other flank that put a ball into Flannery ten minutes in to the half. It looked like the Drumcliffe man was obstructed by the last man back, and the protests from player and home fans, fell on deaf ears.

Athlone again were relying on the counter attack and on the hour, Davoren was denied a shooting opportunity when McNamara brilliantly recovered to rob the ball and clear. Five minutes later, the midlanders threatened once more, when a Kelly cross from the right was flicked on by Davoren but Skelly’s stabbed effort, was brilliantly tipped out by O’Hara.

This was a shot across the bows for the bit o’red and they responded immediately countering with Feeney. The ball went out to Cretaro on the right and his cross into the box, fell to Flannery for a spectacular bicycle kick that was scrambled out for a corner.

The steam was taken out of the game by a series of set pieces and substitutions, Kupono Low having a couple of frees from the right that went narrowly over.  With five minutes left on the clock, Cretaro weaved his way through a sea of bodies to send McTiernan running on goals, but Murphy got out quickly to deny him.

Minutes later a Rossiter corner found its way to Burns who went into striker mode on the by-line, pulling the ball pack but there was no-one there to take advantage.

The visitors gave the bit o’red a final scare in the closing minutes but with squad members and officials waiting in the tunnel to celebrate and the crowd erupting when Paul Deering raised aloft the one minute remaining sign, the Rovers were home and dry and the celebrations began.

The final home game at the end of a historic season and a return to Premier Division football at the end of it. MAGIC.

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