IF YOU PRESS your ear to the ground, turn towards Tallaght and listen ever so closely, you can hear the faint grumblings of dissatisfaction rising around Whitestown Way.
Inevitably, success on the scale achieved by Shamrock Rovers over the last two years breeds high expectations, which in turn either breeds further success or else the whole cycle comes to an unceremonious, jarring halt.
Before a ball was kicked at the beginning of the season, Rovers had almost been crowned again. Bookmakers were falling over themselves in their attempts to see who could chalk up the shortest odds and the league’s talking heads contented themselves with a discussion of who might be likely to come second, rather than upset the status quo by mentioning genuine challengers.
Yes, the bar was set high and after eight league games, not even the most blinkered Shamrock Rovers fan would deny that their start to the season has been unconvincing; some would no doubt use stronger language again.
Dropped points on the road to early-season strugglers Cork and Bray are the main source of worry, especially when the two points salvaged from those fixtures realistically should have been zero. And then there’s the 5-1 in Inchicore and the surrender of their All-Ireland crown over two legs against Derry City in the Setanta Cup semis.
History tells us that talk of prohibitive favourites and massive winning margins in the league is folly at best. Apart from the Bohemian team of 2008 who cantered to the title with 19 points to spare, the distance between first and second at the season’s end is never that great.
Last season when Rovers clinched it with a game to spare, there were four points between themselves and Sligo; the year before they won it on goal difference. Bohs aside, the biggest margin in the last nine seasons was the seven points between Drogheda United and St Pat’s at the end of the 2007 campaign.
Whatever way you spin it, Monday night’s Setanta Cup defeat will be keenly felt in Tallaght and will no doubt provide extra leverage for Stephen Kenny ahead of tonight’s meeting, the third between the sides in the space of 11 days.
But in the league, a little bit of perspective is required. Rovers are three points off the top of the league, a gap they will have a chance to bridge in a fortnight’s time when they travel to the Showgrounds. So far, they’ve an average of 2.1 points per game, equivalent to 76 points over the course of a 36-game season; enough to win them the league by three points last season and nine the season before.
The worry around Tallaght, therefore, is not what has gone before but that which is yet to come — both tonight and against Sligo in two weeks. Rovers’ relative struggles have come before they play either of the teams that were seen as their closest rivals at the start of the season. The optimists will tell you that things can only get better; the pessimists, that the worst may be yet to come.
The reality of this season’s Airtricity League is that it is tight; a lot tighter than people expected, with almost every team capable of taking points off another.
Kenny’s managerial reign in Tallaght is only just beginning and so, it is completely understandable that a bedding-in period is required. He has all of the right notes at his disposal but even for an experienced composer, it takes time to find the formula that leaves you with Beethoven’s Fifth rather than Hanson’s Mmm Bop.
As an old pro once said: “It’s gonna take time, a whole lotta precious time.”
It’s gonna take patience and time to do it right.
Airtricity League fixtures (all Friday, 7.45pm unless stated)
- Sligo Rovers v St Patrick’s Athletic (Friday, 7.05pm)
- Dundalk v Bohemian FC
- UCD v Drogheda United
- Monaghan United v Bray Wanderers (Friday, 8pm)
- Shamrock Rovers v Derry City (Friday, 8pm)
- Shelbourne v Cork City (Friday, 8pm)
- Athlone Town v Longford Town
- Limerick v Waterford United
- Mervue United v Finn Harps
- Wexford Youths v SD Galway (Friday, 8pm)