Rovers win just what the Drogs ordered
IT’S extremely rare to sit down to write a Drogheda United report and wonder aloud ‘where on earth do I start?’, but that was the overwhelming feeling after this remarkable match last Friday night.
The main talking points centred around the performance of referee Robert Rogers and his decisions to award two penalties and send off Sean Brennan, but in a curious way the controversy added hugely to the excitement.
In particular the last 10 minutes – including five added for stoppages – were as action-packed and breathless as you’ll see anywhere and even those who had paid extra for seats in the stand spent most of that time on their feet as the drama unfolded.
That wasn’t good news for the journalists in the back row trying to scrutinise every moment. Already under extra pressure to meet deadlines owing to a late kick-off, we didn’t have a great view of those closing minutes and in all honesty none of us – there were six! – had a clue who’d scored the winning goal until we’d undertaken some ‘detective’ work after the final whistle.
The bottom line, though, is that Drogheda have laid the bogey to rest after losing 13 times in a row to Shamrock Rovers on their own patch.
Perhaps more significantly for the current squad, they have ended their run of six straight defeats, and to achieve that in the way they did should galvanize them going into some vital games against the teams in the bottom half of the table.
At one stage we wondered if this game would take place at all as word came through that the Rovers team bus was stranded because of multiple crashes on the M1, but in the end it kicked off just over 20 minutes late.
There was little optimism among Drogheda fans, especially when the teams were announced and it became clear that the Boynesiders were missing both first-choice strikers and two centre-halves as well as longer-term absentee Killian Brennan.
Rovers were at full strength, but looking at the teamsheet you have to wonder whether they’ve taken their youth policy too far.
It’s certainly not a squad that’s going to competing for the league title any time soon, but that’s not to take anything away from a superb Drogheda performance in difficult circumstances.
The first half was an evenly contested affair, with Rovers just ahead in terms of chances created, beginning with a glancing header from Ronan Finn in the 15th minute which rose inches over the Drogheda crossbar.
Then United keeper Stephen McGuinness, who was an injury doubt before the game, was challenged in the air by Graham Burke and the ball ran loose to former Drog David McAllister whose goal-bound piledriver was brilliantly blocked on the line by Colm Deasy.
Drogs boss Pete Mahon had surprisingly picked league debutant Mark Doyle alongside Gareth McCaffrey in a two-pronged attack and it was Doyle who burst between Finn and David Webster before forcing Tomer Chencinski into his first save of the evening.
Rovers’ highly rated young winger Trevor Clarke almost unlocked the home defence with a superb run and cross which was almost touched in by McAllister at full stretch.
However, crucially, it was Drogheda who snatched the lead goal on 31 minutes.
Sean Thornton tried to dribble in between McAllister and Sam Bone and went down in the box. Referee Rogers pointed to the spot, infuriating the Rovers players who felt the former Sunderland man had gone down too easily, and to rub salt in their wounds Thornton himself dusted himself down before rolling the penalty into the right corner past Chencinski.
Without wishing to tempt fate, is there a more reliable player in this league than Thornton?
Rovers tried to respond before half-time and Burke was unlucky with a viciously swerving shot that eventually grazed the outside of the post.
Drogheda needed to work hard and McCaffrey typified their approach by busting a gut to track back and win the ball back from Clarke who is definitely no slouch himself.
Gavin Brennan had limped off before the interval and it was his replacement, brother Sean, who combined with Stephen Dunne to tee up Jake Hyland and his goal-bound shot was inadvertently blocked by teammate Doyle.
A counter-attack could have yielded a Rovers equaliser on 57 minutes as Burke’s deep cross reached Clarke who blazed over the bar.
The Hoops supporters howled for a penalty following an aerial duel between Kevin Farragher and Gary Shaw, and with three Drogheda players booked in a 14-minute spell Rovers seemed to be building up a head of steam.
But the Boynesiders defended superbly, with Farragher – playing only his second game of the season – and particularly Luke Gallagher immense as the centre-back partnership.
Sean Brennan curled a 30yard free kick just over the bar and Thornton fired wide under pressure from Danny Devine, and suddenly a few decisions started to go Drogheda’s way and the home supporters began to believe that their team could hold out.
But then came that absolutely rollercoaster climax.
Another big shout for a Rovers penalty for hand-ball went unheeded in the 84th minute, but three minutes later they did have a spot kick, apparently for a foul on Shaw.
This time it was Drogheda’s turn to be furious with the official, and Mr Rogers lost patience with Sean Brennan who was promptly dismissed for dissent on a straight red card.
Burke sent McGuinness the wrong way from the spot and at this stage – with two minutes left plus five for stoppages - it felt almost inevitable that Rovers would throw the kitchen sink at the home side and snatch a winner.
But there was to be another big twist as Drogheda won a free kick about 35 yards from goal out on the right.
Thornton whipped the ball into the heart of the penalty area, Ryan McEvoy – who was only on the field two minutes – rose highest and when Chencinski parried his header the ball cannoned off a Rovers defender and into the net for an own goal.
There were still four minutes to be played and you couldn’t take your eyes off the action for one second as play swung from end to end.
On at least two occasions Drogheda almost conjured threeon-one situations as they attempted to break out, with late substitute Thomas Byrne itching to get a clear run on goal.
But Rovers had chances to burst the Boynesiders’ bubble too and in the final seconds McGuinness made an absolutely wonderful save, diving to his left – don’t ask me who took the shot! – to secure all three points for Drogheda.
Mahon had told this newspaper during the week that he wanted his team to become more ‘streetwise’ and they certainly did that against Rovers.
He’ll be furious that one of his senior players talked himself into what is Drogheda’s fourth red card of the season, and the mounting injury list will be a huge concern.
But he’s unearthed another genuine option in attack, Doyle, and on this evidence a 4-4-2 formation might be the way forward – no pun intended!
Mark Doyle of Drogheda United holds the ball up as Danny Devine closes
Samul Bone loses out to Drogheda’s Sean Brennan.