Shamrock Rovers have long been the Republic of Ireland’s most successful club. No-one in the Emerald Isle has won more league titles or FAI Cups, and nor would that have changed had they been edged out in the dramatic finale to the 2010 season.
Yet what was of greater significance to the Dublin outfit than the clinching of a 16th Irish championship was the ending of a 16-year drought. That is how long the Hoops have had to wait to reclaim the national crown, with their recent history having encompassed the most troubled times of the club’s 109-year existence.
It was only last year, in fact, that Shamrock Rovers ended a period of 22 years without a home, decades during which the team had flitted between various locations and were often on the brink of extinction. However, if the 2009 move to the neat, compact Tallaght Stadium brought relief, it is only now that the club’s fans have truly been rewarded for their loyalty throughout its wilderness years.
After all, despite their steadily improving off-field fortunes, the Hoops had still found themselves in the shadow of Bohemians their greatest rivals. Indeed, as recently as a couple of weeks ago, it seemed that Bohs were within touching distance of a third successive title – a title which looked to have been handed to them by their old cross-city adversaries.
After all, having looked near-certainties for the title for much of the season, and just as the long-awaited title was coming into view, Shamrock Rovers had imploded, kicking off October with three successive defeats in the space of nine days. Bohemians capitalised and, with two games remaining, it was the reigning champions – unbeaten since 13 August - who led the table.
And that’s the way it would have stayed, but for the fact that struggling Galway United emerged as Shamrock Rovers’ unlikely saviours, claiming a shock win over Bohs that helped return the Hoops to the league’s summit. Yet even then, with a two-point lead to protect going into the final weekend, the drama of this topsy-turvy season wasn’t complete.
Rovers, in fact, fell behind at Bray Wanderers, and despite turning the match around with goals from Gary Twigg and Tommy Stewart either side of half-time, the hosts equalised with 25 minutes remaining. With Bohemians ahead in their concluding fixture, it made for a nervy conclusion, although Michael O’Neill’s side eventually stumbled over the finish line, claiming the championship on goal difference.
As O’Neill himself acknowledged: “It was a very difficult game for us and mentally we didn't deal with it well. At this minute in time, it is relief rather than joy that I'm feeling.”
Goalscorer Twigg was a predictable hero. The Scotman’s strike was his 50th in 70 appearances for the capital club and, unlike his coach, the forward was left with elation as his overwhelming emotion. "We've waited so long for this and there are going to be some celebrations tonight," he said after being named man of the match. "This one's for all the supporters - finally we're back."
Indeed, however difficult they made it for themselves, Shamrock Rovers’ long wait is now at an end. Furthermore, with the club on a stable financial footing, their coach believes that this overdue success can herald the start of a new and glorious era. As O’Neill said: “This is the first step of a new history that we can write for this football club and hopefully it is a history that we can build on and go from strength to strength.
“It's a great reward for the long-suffering people here who have stuck by this club. I'm delighted for the players; they've put an awful lot in to it. We learned a lot from this and it'll be something they'll remember for a long, long time.”