Declan ‘Fabio’ O’Brien marked his return from suspension with the clinical extra-time winner that completed Monaghan United’s comeback victory over north-east rivals Dundalk in the EA Sports Cup at Gortakeegan.
Playing their 16th match of the season, Premier side Dundalk kept many of their big guns on the bench but a cracking free-kick from Keith Ward gave them an advantage they didn’t surrender until the 80th minute when Philly Byrne headed the Mons level. The Oriel Park men could, perhaps should, have won it in the closing minutes of normal time, only outstanding Gabriel Sava saves denying substitutes Ross Gaynor and Mark Quigley.
But Dundalk had nothing in the tank to respond when O’Brien gave United the extra-time advantage, Roddy Collins’ First Division warriors advancing to the next round of a competition in which they were beaten finalists last season.
The first half gave little hint of the drama to come, a listless affair enlivened in the 21st minute when Dundalk’s Keith Ward stepped up to a 25-yard free-kick and flighted it superbly past the diving Sava.
A Philip Byrne volley easily saved by Paul Murphy was the best a tepid Monaghan could muster by way of immediate response. Dundalk could have taken a greater advantage into the interval if Johnny Breen’s audacious first-time volley on the run had dipped a bit earlier. Mons boss Collins made a decisive change five minutes into the second half, sending on Sean Brennan and abandoning his initial 3-5-2 formation. Brennan’s mobility transfused United’s attacking play, and he was instrumental in an incisive move that saw Paul Whelan bring a good save from Murphy.
Dundalk were forced increasingly on the defensive. O’Brien turned in a low Michael Isichei cross from close range in the 71st minute but the offside flag ruled the effort invalid. Isichei himself then found himself with the goal at his mercy thanks to an inventive lofted pass from Eric Foley, but he volleyed over the crossbar.
When Sean Brennan pulling the stings United increased their attacking momentum, and were rewarded ten minutes from time when Brennan, after his initial corner was cleared, volleyed the ball across goal for Byrne to head home at the far post.
Mons captain Shane Grimes could have snatched a second but failed to make contact with Sean Brennan’s clever free-kick. Dundalk manager Ian Foster had sent on Ross Gaynor and Mark Quigley to try to seal the game, and both had great late chances. Quigley’s powerful shot from outside the box in the 89th minute brought a fine save from Sava, who trumped that stop in added time when he kept out a Gaynor drive that was arrowing towards the bottom corner.
But it was United who were stronger and more composed in extra time. With players from both sides succumbing to cramp, the home side kept possession astutely and made the ball do most of the work.
And it was from a crisp passing movement down the right flank in the 99th minute that Fabio O’Brien glided onto the ball in the penalty area and buried his shot in the far corner.
Dundalk couldn’t respond, and both Michael Isichei and O’Brien had decent chances to put a more flattering complexion on the scoreline as the final minutes of the match played out.
Monaghan United: Gabriel Sava; Dave Rogers, Philip Byrne, Conor McMahon (Sean Brennan, 50) Shane Grimes; Paul Whelan, John Reilly, Dom Tierney (Ryan Brennan, 23), Eric Foley; Declan O’Brien, Jason Marks (Michael Isichei 60).
Subs Not Used: Jake Rossiter (gk), Jimmy Fallon, Kevin Loughran, Garbhan McKenna.
Booked: Whelan (26).
Dundalk: Paul Murphy; Simon Madden, Cian Byrne, Michael Hector, Nathan Murphy; Philip Duffy (Daniel Kearns 60), Stephen McDonnell, Keith Ward, Chris Kerr (Ross Gaynor 60); Mark Griffin (Mark Quigley 74), Johnny Breen.
Subs Not Used: Peter Cherrie (gk), Stephen Hutchinson, Jason Byrne.
Bookings: McDonnell (33), Kerr (34), Quigley (92), C Byrne (120).
Referee: Tom Connolly.