Heartache as Youths go down
Drogs recover from two-goal deficit on night of high drama
Wexford Youths saw their worst possible nightmares become a grim reality in United Park on Friday when the two-goal lead they held from the first leg was wiped out as Drogheda United made a triumphant return to the SSE Airtricity Premier Division one year after being relegated.
Drogheda United 3 Wexford Youths 0
The home side's Windmill Road ground erupted in an outpouring of joy at the end of a quite incredible game, with visiting players falling to the ground in utter disbelief as a pitch invasion saw overjoyed Drogheda fans race on to acclaim their heroes from all sides.
The Youths players will be haunted by this encounter for a long time to come, and the most galling part is that they more than held their own until just before the interval.
Indeed, Danny Furlong had one great chance that might have put the tie to bed, but it all changed in first-half added time when sub-standard netminding by Graham Doyle gifted Drogheda United the lead goal.
He should have dealt easily with a speculative effort from long range, but instead it bounced off his body and went out for a corner on the right. It was played short and, after a quick one-two, Drogheda's stand-in captain Seán Brennan was given far too much time and space to curl a left-footed effort into the net from distance, with Doyle rooted to the spot.
The scorer had been selected to start as regular captain Seán Thornton wasn't risked due to a dead leg. Centre-half Kevin Farragher didn't make the first eleven either due to a groin problem, but the injured duo were both summoned from the bench to replace stricken colleagues and duly played huge roles in the unfolding Drogheda fairytale.
Farragher came on in the 20th minute when Lloyd Buckley was stretchered off and, not alone did he head in the equaliser early in the second-half from a Marc Griffin corner, he entered the ranks of Drogheda heroes for ever more in added time when he somehow cleared Shane Dempsey's shot off the line after the Youths midfielder had rounded netminder Stephen McGuinness.
As for Thornton, the ex-Sunderland schemer replaced the injured Seán Brennan just before that second Drogheda goal and then calmly tucked away what proved to be the decisive third in the 79th minute from the penalty spot after Marc Griffin's leg was hooked as he prepared to shoot.
That Shane Dempsey incident at the death was either a terrible miss or a magnificent piece of defensive play depending on one's club allegiance. Dempsey is certainly unlikely to forget it in a hurry, but it was just one in a series of breath-taking incidents that had the crowd on their feet as the game drew to a scarcely credible conclusion.
There had been high drama in the 84th minute when Youths celebrated wildly after Danny Furlong turned the ball into the net from close range, with referee Graham Kelly gesturing to the centre circle and apparently quite happy to award the goal.
The Drogheda United players raced in unison towards the linesman who then seemed to be swayed by their pleas, with a free-kick eventually awarded to the home side. Frankly, I was amazed that the man with the whistle had seemed willing to give the goal in the first place, as it looked like Aidan Keenan had barrelled into netminder Stephen McGuinness and taken him out of the play.
When all is said and done, Youths had a 2-0 lead going into the game and couldn't make the most of it. The season had been a real learning experience from the very first night, and it was extremely sad to see it ending on such a low note.
Shane Keegan knew that he wouldn't have had the services of Lee Chin if the team was playing on November 4 when he invited him to join the club, so the social media bleatings about the situation midweek were no more than a storm in a teacup. The bottom line was that everybody within the club, along with the team's keenest supporters, had no qualms with Chin's situation.
At any rate, Gary Delaney was deemed fully recovered from his ankle injury and fit for the 90 minutes at centre-half, with Chris Kenny pushing forward to midfield.
Apart from those two enforced changes, it was notable also that ex-Curracloe United player Liam Donnelly was added to the Drogheda match-day squad, having made 17 of his 19 league and cup appearances this season off the bench.
Youths looked dangerous in their opponents' half for long stretches of the first period, with Paul Murphy and Danny Furlong linking up very well. Furlong chested a long ball from Gary Delaney into the path of Conor Whittle in the sixth minute, but the winger didn't get hold of his shot.
Murphy then released Furlong with a superb lofted pass to the left over a defender, but the top scorer couldn't keep his shot down and it flew over.
The dangerous duo linked up again in the 16th minute after a one-two, with Murphy hanging a beautiful cross from the byline for Furlong whose meaty header was somehow kept out.
It was a glorious chance and it ended with Drogheda losing defender Lloyd Buckley to injury, with Kevin Farragher coming in to leave his considerable stamp on proceedings.
Andrew O'Connor's corner was caught by Stephen McGuinness before another effort was cleared after a Conor Whittle shot was deflected over.
Drogheda's lack of penetration up to that point was frustrating their vocal fans, but their spirits were lifted as they came close to goals twice in the space of six minutes.
Graham Doyle saved a Richie Purdy shot and then got a vital hand on the rebound to deny Adam Wixted, while Gary Delaney cleared off the line after Gareth McCaffrey stole in behind Craig McCabe to knock a Wixted cross goalwards.
These were the first real glimmers of life from the home side, and a lot better was to come. Gary Delaney defended a couple of corners before Luke Gallagher made a good interception as Paul Murphy tried to play in Danny Furlong after 40 minutes.
McGuinness saved smartly from Jonny Bonner after a Craig McCabe throw broke into the Donegal man's path, with Delaney again dealing with the third Drogheda corner before Craig McCabe saw yellow for a foul on Marc Griffin.
The four extra minutes were full of drama and actually extended to seven owing to an injury to Seán Brennan. That came shortly after he had given his side the lead with that sensational goal which really ought to have been defended better, but Youths should have levelled in the sixth added minute.
Paul Murphy put a sweet cross from the right on a plate for Aidan Keenan at the near post, but he got his angles wrong and sent a diving header wide.
Youths dealt with a couple of corners on the re-start, the first after Luke Gallagher tested Doyle from long range. And Drogheda really should have doubled their lead in the 50th minute when Marc Griffin bore down on the Youths captain, but the veteran from Kilkenny was equal to the task and brought off his best save of the night with his feet.
Both sides wasted corners before another for Drogheda saw them level the tie in the 58th minute. Marc Griffin swung it in from the right and Kevin Farragher's powerful header found the corner of the net.
Youths were really in a dogfight at this stage, and some neat long balls down the right channel from Chris Kenny looked like their best means of hitting back. One such pass in the 63rd minute sat up nicely for Danny Furlong, but Stephen McGuinness denied him with a fine save.
Furlong crashed a free-kick into the wall after a foul on Conor Whittle, with Jonny Bonner's shot from the rebound deflecting out for a corner which nearly produced a goal in the 73rd minute.
Whittle swung it in from the right and Paul Murphy headed it into the path of Gary Delaney who connected sweetly but couldn't beat a defiant McGuinness.
Seán Thornton wasn't too far off the mark with a shot from distance, but he did the business from the spot in the 79th minute, hitting the ball to Graham Doyle's left after that foul on Marc Griffin.
The tension was unbearable, with Danny Furlong denied again by the inspired McGuinness after a one-two with Whittle prior to that disallowed goal.
Youths made a triple substitution entering the last four minutes, but another five extra were added into the mix. Jake Hyland and Paul Murphy were booked before Drogheda earned their seventh second-half corner (Youths had four), killing some time as everyone watched the clock.
Aidan Keenan saw yellow for a push after the ball went out of play, but he then fashioned a chance when he was fouled in a central position in the second added minute. Shane Dempsey connected well but the ball flew over the bar, although an even better chance was on its way.
Drogheda's player of the year, centre-half Luke Gallagher, was named man of the match over the P.A. just before Paul Murphy hooked the ball into Dempsey's path in the box. Time seemed to stand still as he rounded McGuinness but then hesitated for just one split second, giving a chance to Kevin Farragher to get back and save the day.
After all the highs and lows since last March, an entire season came down to that one moment. Ninety seconds later the full-time whistle signalled wildly differing emotions, and it's highly unlikely that the reality of what happened has really sunk in yet for Youths.
And I'd be very surprised if the photographs of a beaming Shane Keegan signing his new two-year contract to manage Galway United just two days later helped the healing process either.
Wexford Youths: Graham Doyle (capt.); Craig McCabe, Gary Delaney, Lee Grace, Andrew O'Connor; Conor Whittle, Jonny Bonner, Chris Kenny, Aidan Keenan; Paul Murphy, Danny Furlong. Subs. - Aidan Friel for O'Connor (86), Shane Dempsey for Kenny (86), Shane Dunne for Whittle (86), also Eoin Porter, Vincent Quinlan, Dean George, Corey Chambers.
Drogheda United: Stephen McGuinness; Colm Deasy, Luke Gallagher, Lloyd Buckley, Stephen Dunne; Richie Purdy, Seán Brennan (capt.); Adam Wixted, Jamie Hyland, Gareth McCaffrey; Marc Griffin. Subs. - Kevin Farragher for Buckley, inj. (20), Seán Thornton for Brennan, inj. (54), Aaron Ashe for Wixted (89), also Paddy Dunican, Derek Doyle, John McKeown, Liam Donnelly.
Referee: Graham Kelly (Cork).