CHRIS LYONS netted a 92nd minute winner as Drogheda United moved into the driving seat in the promotion-relegation play-off against Finn Harps.
Drogheda United 1 Finn Harps 0
By Chris McNulty at United Park. Pictures by Joe Boland
Lyons fired home two minutes into added time for a dramatic winner that tips the scales in Drogheda’s favour ahead of Friday’s return leg in Ballybofey.
Sub Stephen Meaney put the ball across the penalty area and the ball fell inviting for Lyons. The Drogs attacker was the picture of cool as he side-stepped a defender before curling home past Mark Anthony McGinley.
On a night when Drogheda had the better of the chances, McGinley looked to be on his way to a ninth clean sheet of the season until the Drogs struck the late sucker punch.
Harps, whose manager Ollie Horgan was sent off with 30 minutes to play, lived dangerous at times and they were made pay when Lyons struck a dagger through their hearts.
There was still time for Harps to fashion a late chance of a leveller, but sub Raffaele Cretaro shot off the post.
Harps had a real let-off 18 minutes from the end. Luke McNally prodded goal-ward from close range and, after Mark Russell cleared off the line, Stephen Meaney – who had only just come into the action – riffled over when he ought to have hit the target.
Drogheda swept forward soon after and Conor Kane’s cross just missed the in-rushing Mark Doyle with McGinley plucking the ball from the sky.
Harps manager Horgan was banished to the stands in rather bizarre circumstances on the hour. With Harps ready to defend a free-kick, Harry Ascroft went off the field to change his shorts, which had ripped.
With the officials not allowing Ascroft return before play resume, Horgan was livid. After a stand-off with the officials, Horgan was sent off.
Harps goalkeeper McGinley kept the slate clean with a magnificent save in the 19th minute. Chris Lyons recycled the play wide on the left touchline after Adam Wixted’s corner flew across the penalty area. Lyons weaved his way inside and a dipping effort was wonderfully turned over the top by the stretching McGinley.
Moments earlier, Harps had a reprieve when Wixted pounced on a rare slip by Sam Todd and flung across for Lyons, whose close-range header was into the midriff of the grateful McGinley.
Keith Cowan had powered over the top in the second minute after a set piece wasn’t dealt with and Harps had a big moment themselves in the 26th minute. Nathan Boyle – who scored last year when Harps overcame Drogheda in the First Division play-off – shot over from beneath the Drogheda crossbar, but had his blushes spared by an offside flag.
That came after Cowan went down in the area and Harps cried foul, but ref’ Hennessy was having none of their appeals.
Cowan – withdrawn at half-time in the Brandywell on Friday night – was passed fit to start at the heart of the Harps rearguard, while Mark Coyle also got the nod. There was no place in the squad, though, for Mark Timlin, who was injured on Friday-week last as Harps overcame Waterford 1-0 in Ballybofey.
Although this week represents Harps’ 13th play-off tie, it is the club’s first time to compete in the play-offs as the Premier Division club.
Harps had won promotion from the First Division in each of their last three times to compete in the play-offs, but Harps supporters of an older vintage can recall the hours of pain in their search for promotion. And, so, their nerves jangled as they wandered up the Windmill Road.
Drogheda were unchanged from Friday’s 5-1 thumping of Cabinteely. Horgan opted to skip his side’s derby game at Derry City and instead was at United Park to see McNally net a hat-trick for the Drogs.
McNally was presented with a decent chance on the half-hour here, but the centre-back couldn’t get over the ball from a teasing Wixted corner.
Ruairi Harkin almost caught Luca Gratzer out late in the first half when his cross cannoned off the far post, while Mark Coyle went down under the challenge of James Brown in added time. Hennessy had a good luck, but gave a stern shake of the head.
Beforehand, Horgan said he would have taken a narrow defeat. Now, Harps’ Premier Division survival goes on the line.
It’s all to play for.
Drogheda United: Luca Gratzer; James Brown, Luke McNally, Kevin Farragher, Conor Kane; Mark Hughes, Sean Brennan (Jamie Hollywood 78); Adam Wixted (Stephen Meaney 70), Luke Heeney, Mark Doyle; Chris Lyons.
Finn Harps: Mark Anthony McGinley; Harry Ascroft, Keith Cowan, Sam Todd; Jacob Borg, Ruairi Harkin (Daniel O’Reilly (78), Gareth Harkin, Tony McNamee, Mark Russell; Mark Coyle (Raffaele Cretaro 74); Nathan Boyle (Mikey Place 90).
Referee: Rob Hennessy