Sky Blues shine on a truly special day
North End United 1 Pike Rovers 1 (AET), North End win 5-4 on pens
Historic occasion, nerve-jangling tension, unbridled joy; the players, coaches and supporters of North End United wouldn't have it any other way. This is how you want to become the first-ever Wexford winner of the FAI New Balance Junior Cup.
That's how a ten-round competition should end. North End could have pushed on after half-time and won handier, but the kiss of the cup lingers longer like this, and that first refreshing, celebratory drink hits the spot that bit quicker.
In the end it took penalties, and it's a lottery, you know. Except it didn't look like that. North End hit five perfect penalties, and Pike 'keeper Gary Neville came close to none of them. What did John Godkin's side do in their last session before this game? They practiced penalties.
Yes, of course, nerve, bottle and mentality come into a penalty shoot-out. Five kicks, Paul 'Spot' Murphy, Paul Murphy, Kyle Dempsey, Adam Beary and finally Gary Delaney - the five biggest moments of their sporting lives.
Every penalty was as good as the one before, as good as the one that came after. Maybe embracing destiny brings a serenity that fed into the North End psyche, as not one of the five looked like missing, not one of them seemed anything other than steely focused.
And what about Lee Walker? People talk of it being a free run for goalkeepers, that they have nothing to lose, that they aren't really expected to save a penalty so it's so much easier for them.
Don't tell the goalkeeper he shouldn't expect to save one. This is the moment these lads live for, on a hiding to nothing as the last line of defence, and you can bet Walker expected to save a spot-kick and save Colin Daly's he did.
The Pike attacker went low to his left, Walker's right. He guessed the correct way - which he did on two of the five kicks - and made the stop. It was the only chance either 'keeper had of making a save and Walker pulled it off.
At that stage, with the two Paul Murphys already successful, it was 2-2. Kyle Dempsey went low to his right, sending Gary Neville the wrong way.
Shane Walsh made it 3-3 but Adam Beary's effort proved too powerful for the Pike stopper to get anywhere near moments later.
Patrick Mullins blasted it high down the centre to put all the pressure on the final North End kicker. Ordinarily, the responsibility would have fallen to Jay Murphy to take the fifth but, with the striker off the field, newest recruit Gary Delaney stepped up to the plate.
The former Wexford Youths and Waterford F.C. clubman was coolness personified. He fired it low to his left to set off raucous celebrations on the field, on the sideline and amongst the boisterous travelling Sky Blues support.
The win was the culmination of years of work from hundreds of people, but at the end of the day it came down to 15 players who took to the field. Every single one of them contributed and one would be foolhardy to argue with the choice of captain Paul Murphy as man of the match.
However, the back four of North End was magnificent. The aberration of allowing Colin Daly to run at them untouched for the equaliser aside - and the midfield could take the bulk of the responsibility for that - they didn't put a foot wrong.
You know what you get from Delaney and Decky Downes at this stage, but maybe the best of the quartet was Dale Flynn. He was solid at left-back but magnificent when he was switched to the centre after Downes' injury.
The first-half was near perfect for North End. They controlled the game completely, played it at their pace and had the lion's share of the ball. They didn't create a string of clearcut chances but they had more than enough opportunities to warrant an interval lead.
It was a game of inches early on as both Paul Murphy and Robin Dempsey missed vital touches that might have produced an opener. Jay Murphy then got brother 'Spot' away on the right but the attempted chip from the North End captain never got the elevation it needed to trouble Neville.
Lee Wadding-Byrne intercepted and fed Jay Murphy 30 yards from goal, but the United attacker couldn't hit the target. After 30 minutes of complete domination, North End got a reminder of why Pike Rovers reached the final in 2016.
Delaney made a last-ditch block on Daly after the excellent Steve McGann slipped him in on the left of goal. From the resulting Wayne O'Donovan corner, Jason Mullins connected well with his header but flighted it narrowly over the crossbar.
North End were getting closer late in the half, as Paul Murphy drilled over from 25 yards out, and then hit the midriff of Neville with a free from a similar distance. Then, in the 43rd minute, he latched onto a mistake in the Pike defence, raced around the Rovers 'keeper and was taken down.
The outstretched limb was a blessing for Murphy as it looked like the chance had gone with a heavy final touch, but there was no doubt about the award of the penalty. Murphy stepped up to the spot-kick himself and coolly fired low to the left, the same as he would later in the shoot-out, to make it 1-0.
It seemed like North End were on their way at the break but their opponents responded superbly after half-time. They completely bossed the third quarter and at this stage it looked like the Wexford side were badly missing the calming influence of tidy midfielder Shane Dempsey, who was overseas with the army.
After a couple of last-ditch challenges prevented previous Pike chances, there was no stopping their equaliser in the 62nd minute. Colin Daly ran at them from the right side of the area and, concerned that a mistimed tackle would give their opponents a penalty, United backed away. Eventually the ball went across to Steven McGann and he sent a composed finish past Walker to level the cup final.
There were a few nervy moments for the North End faithful before things settled down, including when Keith Kearney was forced to hook a Cian Collins effort off the line and moments later when Walker saved from the Rovers striker when he cut in from the right.
Later, North End were howling for a penalty when Beary went over in the box. There was contact after a clumsy challenge from behind but the fact that the ball got caught up in Beary's feet just before the tackle didn't help his chances.
The game meandered at the end and extra-time looked inevitable for a while. That pattern of play continued in the first-half of ten minutes but things came to life again in the last period of overtime as legs began to empty.
It was North End who looked stronger in the final throes. A quick 'Spot' Murphy free saw Beary fouled on the edge of the area. The free-kick, right in front of the goal, 19 yards out was blasted into the wall by the other Paul Murphy.
Then, with two minutes left the substitute had another chance. This time it came from a Kyle Dempsey corner, Murphy headed across goal but Cian Power hooked away - although there were some suggestions that the ball crossed the line before it was cleared.
However, it didn't matter a jot after the penalty shoot-out. North End, their five shooters and goalkeeper Lee Walker, won the cup as stylishly as you can win a penalty competition, completing an historic run to a first-ever Junior Cup for a Wexford club.
North End United: Lee Walker; Warren Broaders, Gary Delaney, Decky Downes, Dale Flynn; Robin Dempsey, Lee Wadding-Byrne, Kyle Dempsey, Keith Kearney; Paul 'Spot' Murphy (capt.), Jason Murphy. Subs. - Gary Byrne for R. Dempsey, inj. (46), Adam Beary for Downes, inj. (65), John Fenlon for J. Murphy (72), Paul Murphy (Kilmore) for Wadding-Byrne (80), also Danny Fitzpatrick, Andy Moore, Dylan Owens.
Pike Rovers: Gary Neville; Wayne O'Donovan, Wayne Colbert, Patrick Mullins (capt.), Edward O'Donovan; Steve McGann, Shane Walsh; Eoin Hanrahan, Colin Daly, Paddy O'Malley; Cian Collins. Subs. - Jason Mullins for Hanrahan, inj. (20), Darragh Carroll for Colbert, inj. (66), Cian Power for O'Malley (81), David Ryan for J. Mullins (100), also Adam Lipper, Brian O'Callaghan, James Tierney.
Referee: Derek O'Shea (Kerry).