Derry City 1, Shamrock Rovers 1
For 22 minutes it was 'game on' before ultimately Derry had to settle for 'as you were' in the chase for the 2023 Airtricity Premier Division title.
We often hear how seasons are defined by details, trophies won in the season small-print and if Shamrock Rovers do go on to complete their historic four-in-a row, they will look back on referee Paul McLaughlin's 83rd minute decision to award a penalty which scored them a crucial point at Brandywell Stadium.
Shane McEleney's contact on Rovers' Graham Burke as he went through looked minimal; the decision looked harsh but ultimately all the debate in the world won't change the fact Derry remain four points behind with six games to play. It's still all to play for, but this draw was worth more than one point to Stephen Bradley's team!
Derry will look back with frustration. They were the better team for long periods, especially in the second half, and should have been two up before the penalty but the red card that followed McEleney's foul on Burke meant a draw was by no means a disaster.
For a game that left as many questions as answers, Ruaidhri Higgins made two change from the side which strolled to victory against UCD at the Belfield Bowl 10 days previously. In came the fit again Ronan Boyce and Michael Duffy with Ciaran Coll and Brandon Kavanagh dropping to the bench. And it was a probably a measure of Rovers' performance in the Dublin derby victory over Bohemians last time out that Stephen Bradley named an unchanged side from that 3-0 win.
Derry's intention was clear from the first whistle; intensity. The home side pressed Rovers at every opportunity, fuelling the partisan home crowd in an attempt to unsettle the Dubliners. Rovers' though have not won three titles in a row by relaying solely in pretty football and via a few clever delays over free-kicks and throw-ins they gradually quelled Derry's opening salvo and gradually gained a foothold.
Burke was central to that as Rovers controlled the middle section of a half bookended by two periods of Derry pressure that illustrated the critical nature of the midfield battle. Control the middle, control the game. Sadou Diallo was the base on which Derry's bid was built but chances were at a premium. Boyce saw an early shot gathered by Alan Mannus at the second attempt while Burke's 15th minute effort was straight at Maher.
The visitors probably shaded the first half chances, Gaffney twice denied by heroic Cameron McJannet blocks following a back post corner while the striker later flashed a fierce shot inches wide of Maher's near post from 18 yards.
Not that Derry didn't have their moments too. Indeed they should have taken the lead just after the half hour mark when Patching’s deep corner found Diallo arriving in space at the edge of the area. The midfielder's shot looked goal-bound but unfortunately for Derry it struck Danny Mullen and was cleared.
It was a half of 'almost' for Derry, the home side's at times impressive approach play threatening to open up Rovers but too often lacking the final finishing touch as the half remained scoreless.
With Ronan Finn and Sean Kavanagh both picking up first half yellow cards, Stephen Bradley introduced Neil Farrugia and Trevor Clarke, obviously keen to avoid being reduced to 10 men but it was Derry who almost started the second period with a bang.
First a lightning quick break saw Higgins men build from inside their own box to release McMullan. The Scot resisted the temptation to play in Danny Mullen first time, instead accelerating into the Rovers half. Just when he looked to have over-run it, McMullan produced a superb cross but, under pressure, Mullen was unable to control it and a gilt edged chance was gone.
Minutes later another Derry break saw McJannet feed Patching who released Duffy coming in off the left wing to run at Farrugia. Duffy got his shot away but it was too close to Mannus.
Derry's pressure was building and, just after the hour mark, the roof almost came off both Brandywell stands courtesy of a most unlikely source!
Derry's increased threat coincided directly with Will Patching seeing more of the ball and it was his corner, swung in from the left, that found Cameron McJannet unmarked six yards out and the resulting header lit the blue touch paper!
As the decibel level threatened to cause structural damage, Derry pressed again and should have made the game safe when O’Reilly broke into the box and, with McMullan screaming square for a tap in, decided to shoot. His effort went inches only wide of the far post but a huge chance was gone. It was a pivotal moment.
Derry made their own double change with Cameron Dummigan and striker Cian Kavanagh introduced ahead of the expected late Rovers onslaught which arrived right on cue in the most controversial of circumstances.
With the clock showing 83 minutes, the ball broke to Liam Burt just inside the Derry half. The substitute found Gaffney who had drifted deep, allowing Graham Burke to run into the vacated space behind him. Gaffney's pass was perfect, Burke was in. McEleney was chasing back and did make contact. It looked minimal but it was enough to send Burke down and referee Paul McLaughlin pointed to the spot. Worse still, he produced a red card for a shocked McEleney who could only watch on his way off as Burke despatched the penalty.
A man down and pinned back, Derry responded by bringing in Mark Connolly and Ciaran Coll to stem the Rovers tide and ensure they lived to fight another day in the title race. It worked, but just how crucial that 83rd minute penalty will prove in deciding the destination of the Premier Division title only time will tell!