O'Neill relieved to seal titleSaturday, 30 October 2010 14:44
Shamrock Rovers manager Michael O'Neill was a relieved man after watching his side finally end their 16-year wait for a League of Ireland title.
Rovers' 2-2 draw with Bray Wanderers was enough to give them their 16th league title and deny rivals Bohemians a third title in-a-row on goal difference.
In a season of numerous twists and turns, there was more drama on a tense night at the Carlisle Grounds as Jake Kelly gave Bray an early lead with Rovers looking rattled by the occasion.
Goals from Gary Twigg and Tommy Stewart either side of half-time put the Hoops in control, but Gary Shaw headed an equaliser to leave a nerve-jangling final 25 minutes for the massive travelling support.
Fortunately for the fans, the Hoops held on, with the subsequent pitch invasion the only predictable element of the night.
'It was a very difficult game for us and mentally we didn't deal with it well,' said O'Neill.
'If I'm truthful, we played for about ten minutes either side of half-time and that was enough to get us ahead. Losing the goal again we were a slight bit nervous.
'We were aware of what was going on at Dalymount Park, but at the end of the day after 36 games we sit on top of the league and we're delighted with that.
'It's the start of things now. We're delighted to get this behind us. At this minute in time, it is relief rather than joy that I'm feeling.'
Rovers had been near certainties to end their title drought for long parts of the season, but four defeats in six of the last seven games had let Bohs back into the title race.
Galway United's win over Bohs last week and Rovers' victory over Drogheda United saw the Hoops reclaim top spot.
O'Neill said 'hard words' had been spoken in previous weeks, but admitted that last night's half-time teamtalk focussed on the positive.
He said: 'I just felt tonight that the hard words would not have the desired effect, so we did a bit of cajoling. The game was mentally difficult for them. We showed our inexperience, we showed that we hadn't been in this situation before.
'We basically tried to talk them through it. There is no magic recipe in there. You looked in their faces and at times you saw a little bit of fear.'
O'Neill was mobbed, hugged, and even kissed, by Rovers fans after the final whistle, but the boss was quick to praise his whole squad, with Scottish duo Craig Sives and Twigg receiving a special mention.
Twigg's goal was his 50th in 70 games for the Hoops and he is already worshipped in song by the fans, while Sives has overcome string of injuries problems to establish himself as one of the foremost defenders in the league.
O'Neill said: 'I didn't think [Twigg] looked well tonight. He had a bit of a hamstring problem. He's done that consistently since he's come to this club. He done it again tonight at the right time.
'I thought Craig Sives was just immense for us tonight. I thought it was the performance of a true leader and a top, top player.
'I'm delighted for him because he came here with his career basically in the doldrums. He has turned it around to prove that if he is not the best, then he is certainly one of the best centre-backs in this league.
"Sivvy" was the only one who really grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck for us and the others responded to that.'
Many League of Ireland observers believe Rovers are set to dominate the Airtricity League for the next few seasons as their rivals struggle with financial problems and O'Neill hopes that this title could be the first of many.
He said: 'There's been a lot of work gone into it. When I came here I didn't think we'd go so close last year. Obviously, that heightens expectations and expectation brings its own set of problems.
'It's important that we got that title. 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. It'll be something they'll remember for a long, long time.'