AUSTRALIAN HARRY Ascroft was the extra-time hero as Finn Harps retained their Premier Division status with a dramatic play-off win over Drogheda United.
Finn Harps 2 Drogheda United 0 (after extra time)
By Chris McNulty at Finn Park. Pictures by Joe Boland, North West News Pix
Ascroft sent the majority of the 2,113 Finn Park crowd into raptures with a 107th minute winner as Ollie Horgan’s Harps turned the tie on its head.
In the 50th anniversary of the club’s entry into the League of Ireland in 1969, Harps stayed up on a drenching night of high tension by the Finn as Mark Russell’s early goal took the contest to the nervy extra period.
A winter signing from Balzan in Malta, Ascroft proved the hero of the hour two minutes into the second half of extra time.
Ascroft managed to squeeze home a header from Tony McNamee’s corner.
A ninth clean sheet of the season for Mark Anthony McGinley was easily his most vital as Harps, in the face of a tidal wave of pressure, held on.
On their last three play-off visits, Harps had won promotion from the First Division, but this was their first time taking to the do-or-die stage as the Premier Division side.
In 12 previous ties, Harps had never lost the home leg of a play-off and – in front of 2,113 spectators – they got off to the best possible start as Russell levelled the tie in the seventh minute.
Russell finished from close range after getting on the end of a clever clip into the area by Ruairi Harkin, who was spotted lurking on the edge of the area by the swift-thinking Mark Timlin from a corner.
Horgan’s selection showed three changes from Monday’s game at United Park.
Timlin, injured two weeks ago in the 1-0 win over Waterford, was passed fit to start, while veteran Raffaele Cretaro and Mikey Place were also restored to the first XI.
Mark Coyle, Nathan Boyle and McNamee dropped to the bench.
Russell headed over from a Place corner on 20 minutes and, in the closing moments of the first half, Sam Todd flicked a header off target from another set piece.
Harps were promoted via a play-off win over Limerick last year, having edged Drogheda in the First Division play-off. In their first year back in the top flight, the Donegal side stayed above the low-water line ahead of relegated UCD.
Drogheda came to Ballybofey holding the slender 1-0 advantage given to them by Chris Lyons’ last-ditch winner in the first leg. Just when Harps were getting ready to come back home with a scoreless draw, Lyons tucked home put Drogheda in the driving seat.
Stephen Meaney, who had a big impact off the bench on Monday, including providing the assist for Lyons’ winner, was brought back into Drogheda’s team with Adam Wixted making way.
Wixted came in for Meaney at half-time and the Drogs began the second half with purpose, Luke Heeney firing over after Sean Brennan did well to invite the shot.
Mark Anthony McGinley, the Harps goalkeeper, saved from Mark Doyle on the hour before Harps had a big chance to go ahead on 65 minutes.
Cretaro was the architect at first. The Sligo man’s slide-rule pass teed up Russell, who drove into the goalmouth. Place had two bites at the rebound, but just couldn’t force it home.
Six minutes from the end, Finn Park’s heart was in its mouth when Doyle met a cross from Luke McNally, but McGinley was able to save.
Enter extra time, where Ascroft stepped up as the man of the moment.
Finn Harps: Mark Anthony McGinley; Harry Ascroft, Keith Cowan, Sam Todd; Jacob Borg, Ruairi Harkin (Tony McNamee 94), Gareth Harkin, Mark Timllin, Mark Russell; Raffaele Cretaro (Mark Coyle 90 (Daniel O’Reilly 104)); Mikey Place (Nathan Boyle 73)
Drogheda United: Luca Gratzer; James Brown, Luke McNally, Kevin Farragher, Conor Kane; Stephen Meaney (Adam Wixted half-time), Luke Heeney, Mark Hughes (Jordan Adeyemo 97), Sean Brennan (Jamie Hollywood 61, Mark Doyle; Chris Lyons (Ryan O’Shea 112).
Referee: Neil DoyleTags: