Drogheda kept their faint title hopes alive with a tense, but deserved, victory over Shelbourne at a chilly Hunky Dory’s Park on Monday night. Mick Cooke’s men were far the better team in the first half and went in a goal to the good at the break courtesy of a Declan O’Brien penalty, but Shelbourne were a different proposition in the second half and pushed the hosts all the way, almost forcing a draw in a frenetic final quarter.
A victory was imperative for Drogheda as they seek to overcome St Pats and hold off Shamrock Rovers in a battle for a Europa League spot next year and the home side were dominant in the opening 20 minutes and went close through a Ryan Brennan header early on.
They got the lead they deserved on 21 minutes as Glen Cronin pulled back Declan O’Brien when he attempted to latch onto a Peter Hynes pass and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. O’Brien took the kick himself and crashed his penalty down the middle, giving Chris Bennion in the Shels goal no hope of saving.
Shelbourne almost responded straight away but the lively Philip Gorman skied his effort from eighteen yards as the game opened up a little as the Reds were forced out of their defensive shell to search for an equaliser.
Drogheda were still very much in command for the remainder of the half and had chances to double their lead through Eric Foley, who shot just wide, and Paul Crowley, who was denied by Lorcan Fitzgerald who took the ball off Paul Crowley’s toe as he lined up a shot in a central position inside the area.
Shelbourne, possibly with one eye on next weekend’s cup semi-final, were off the pace in the first half but Alan Matthews’ team talk had the desired affect as they emerged a totally different side for the second period.
The north Dublin outfit were playing with a much better tempo to their game and Barry Clancy almost deceived everyone when his low free-kick was narrowly averted wide at the last minute. Most of the away side’s good work was coming down the right flank with Conan Byrne prominent and he had a good opportunity to trouble the Drogheda defence but his delivery was poor and his cross flew high over the goal.
Then, on 57 minutes, came a moment of controversy as Gareth Matthews was penalised for a foul near the corner flag. He then kicked the ball into a prostrate Drogheda player who committed the offence and was then pushed by Gavin Brennan.
A melee involving several players ensued and when the dust settled referee Neil Doyle sent both players to the line. The judgement seemed a little harsh but both players were guilty of a lack of discipline and by the letter of the law the referee had little option. The game then briefly threatened to boil over as some industrial challenges went in the middle of the park but, in fairness to the referee, he managed to calm things down and the game developed into an open and entertaining affair.
Both teams made changes as we entered the final twenty minutes and Declan O’Brien had a great chance to wrap things up for the home side when found by a defence splitting pass by Eric Foley but the striker couldn’t get the requisite height with his chip and the goalkeeper saved.
He went even closer moments later when his shot was cleared off the line but in the next passage of play Ryan Brennan looked to have sealed all three points when he slotted home from the edge of the area. This time Shelbourne did respond immediately as substitute Philly Hughes pulled one back to set up a fraught six additional minutes for Drogheda who they were denied a third by a stunning Chris Bennion save from an equally good Ryan Brennan volley.
Paul Byrne came close to an equaliser with the last action of the game but his header flew over the bar as Drogheda held on for a valuable three points in their quest for a top three finish.
Drogheda United: Gabriel Sava; Brian Gannon, Derek Prendergast, Alan Byrne, Philip Hand; Ryan Brennan, Paul Crowley, Eric Foley, Gavin Brennan; Declan O’Brien, Peter Hynes (Cathal Brady 66 (Jason Marks 82)).
Subs not used: Michael Schlingerman, Stephen Quigley, John Sullivan, Tiarnan Mulvenna, Sean Brennan.
Booked: Crowley (41), R Brennan (90+3).
Sent Off: G Brennan (57).
Shelbourne: Chris Bennion; Gareth Matthews, Stephen Paisley, Brian Shortall (Ian Ryan 66), Lorcan Fitzgerald; Conan Byrne, Glen Cronin (Keith Dawson 83), Stephen Hurley, Barry Clancy (Philip Hughes 71); Philip Gorman, Paul Byrne.
Subs not used: Paul Skinner, Andy Boyle, Paddy Kavanagh, Sean Byrne.
Booked: Shortall (53), Paisley (75).
Sent Off: G Matthews (57).
Referee: Neil Doyle.
Extratime.ie Man of the Match: Ryan Brennan (Drogheda United).