Chris Shields was the hero on an incredible night of football at the Carlisle Grounds on Monday night, as he fired home his side's 8th penalty in a dramatic shoot-out to ensure that Bray Wanderers maintained their top-flight status at the expense of a battling Monaghan United.
It had looked like Monaghan had secured promotion for the 2011 season when Shields deflected a Don Tierney strike into the net after 118 minutes, but Bray came up with a swift reply from Jake Kelly to save their bacon and ensure the game was not beyond the home side.
After the scoreless draw in Monaghan last Friday, this game was a really hard one to call from the out-set, but the game took a good while to get going, as a torrential downpour of rain hit the Wicklow venue during the opening ten minutes, which was making it almost impossible for both teams to play in the manner that they had hoped.
For what it was worth, Monaghan did have the better of the play during the opening period, though Brian Kane didn't have too much to worry about in the Bray goal early on. Bray did start to settle eventually, but chances were proving to be few and far between on a night where the margin for error was always going to very small.
Monaghan did threaten on the break after 25 minutes, and almost found a way through on goal, but Shields was on hand to cut out the danger before it was too late. As the half wore on, Bray started to cause more problems for The Mons, as star forwards Shane O'Neill and Kelly were beginning to see a lot more of the ball.
With half-time fast approaching, it seemed likely that the score would remain 0-0 going into the second half, but Bray went extremely close to taking the lead five minutes before the break when O'Neill fed midfielder Danny O'Connor, who struck a firm shot at goal that required a full-stretch save from Monaghan custodian Gabriel Sava, who managed to tip the ball over in the end.
This was the first real chance of the game for either side, though Barry Clancy almost got on the end of a Sean Brennan cross just three minutes later. With the sides still level going into the second period, it was still proving difficult to predict how this game would pan out, and it wasn't until the 61st minute that the next meaningful opportunity presented itself. This time it fell to the away side, as the industrious Brennan whipped in another telling cross, which found the head of Alan Byrne, who was in plenty of space, but could not direct his header towards the goal, and could only watch as it bounced harmlessly over the bar.
Shane Grimes also went close for Monaghan just four minutes later, when his shot from a tight-angle on the left was turned away by Kane, as the Division One side were starting to step things up a gear.
The introduction of striker Karl Bermingham with 15 minutes of normal-time left also sought to address this matter, but it was actually Wanderers who would threaten next, as Dean Zambra shot wide on 80 minutes after Sava was left stranded. Zambra also went close just eight minutes later, but there was already a sense at this stage that the game would be entering into extra-time, and so it proved. The first period of extra-time didn't produce too much of note, though Bray were looking like the fresher team, with substitute Gary Shaw giving them plenty of energy in the middle of the park.
However, the second half of extra-time would produce an extraordinary sequence of events. First of all, Sava pulled off a superb save from JKelly, who struck sweetly on his left peg, but couldn't find a way past the impressive Mons 'keeper.
It seemed like this would be the best chance of there being a goal during extra-time, which made what followed all the more incredible. A corner on 118 minutes for Monaghan was met by the head of Brian Gartland, who nodded the ball against the post, but the ball soon found its way to Don Tierney, whose shot hit off Shields before finding its way into The Seagulls net.
This set the Monaghan fans into the raptures, and actually caused the wall just below the press box to collapse. This was the second year in-a-row that a wall in the Carlisle Grounds collapsed for a big season finale, and is something that the FAI and Bray themselves are currently investigating.
Understandably, this delayed the re-start by a minute or two, though it looked like Monaghan had done enough to gain promotion to the top-flight. Bray had other ideas however, as Shields showed great determination to make up for his own goal by delivering the ball from the right-wing two minutes into added time, a header which was spilled by Sava, leaving Kelly with the simple task of firing into an empty net for his 16th league goal of the season.
This sent the game into penalties, with Bray holding a slight advantage given the way that they snatched victory away from their opponents. Bermingham and Hughes slotted home Monaghan's first two penalties, with Gary Dempsey and Jake Kelly also scoring early efforts for Bray. Substitute Shaw missed his shot at goal though, after Gartland had put Monaghan in front.
This soon turned into a 4-2 advantage courtesy of a Barry Clancy strike, with Dane Massey keeping up the pressure on Mons. Byrne then had the chance to win it for Monaghan, but he smacked his kick off the bar, and Danny O'Connor then stepped up to send the shoot-out into sudden death.
During this sudden death period, Daire Doyle and O'Neill cancelled out Monaghan efforts from Tierney and Stephen McCrossan. Full-back Paul Whelan them missed Monagahan'e eight attempt, which meant that Shields was given the chance to go from zero to hero with his kick.
Shields did just this, to ensure that Bray completed an extraordinary turnaround, both on Monday and throughout the season, leaving Monaghan with the prospect of another season in the First Division next season, though their efforts on the night should not go unnoticed.
Bray Wanderers: Kane; Doyle, Mitchell, S O'Connor, Massey; Zambra (Shaw '93), Dempsey, D O'Connor, Shields, J Kelly; O'Neill.
Subs not used: Tresson, Tuohy, G Kelly, Geogh.
Monaghan Utd: Sava; Whelan, McMahon (McCrossan '71), Gartland, Grimes; O'Connor (Hanaphy '86), Tierney, Byrne, Brennan (Bermingham '75); Hughes, Clancy.
Subs not used: Quirke.
Referee: D. Hanney (Dublin).
Daire Walsh began reporting for Extratime in 2009, when he covered Kildare County's games in the League Of Ireland First Division. He currently reports on games involving the league's Dublin sides and also Bray Wanderers. You can contact Daire at firstname.lastname@example.org.