So close they can almost taste it – Monaghan United scaled the greater part of the ladder into the big time when goals early from Michael Isichei and late from Sean Brennan gave them firm control of their promotion/relegation playoff with Galway United with a convincing victory in the Gortakeegan first leg.
Roddy Collins’ troops were the dominant force in the encounter, but their failure to build on Isichei’s 13th minute finish looked like giving the pragmatic Galway United, side defensively geared but intermittently dangerous thanks to the sharp shooting of Alan Murphy, the chance to turn the tables on them.
With both teams reduced to ten men when a flare-up late in the second half saw Mons’ Eric Foley and Galway’s Sean Gavin both dismissed by referee Derek Tomney, who kept a firm grip on the combative proceedings, United upped the pressure in the final stages, and were rewarded when Jordan Keegan slipped the ball across the box in the 87th minute for Brennan to drive to the net.
The Mons had gone at their Premier Division opponents with a will from the kick-off, Galway keeper Conor Winn having to save bravely at Sean Brennan’s feet as early as the second minute.
Two decent efforts from distance from Alan Murphy registered Galway’s presence in the game, but they found themselves behind in the 13th minute.
Shane Brennan found Sean Brennan in the box, and he produced some deft trickery before crossing for Isichei to convert from three yards – a memorable moment for the 20-year-old Dubliner who had been used mainly off the bench in the Collins regime but who got his chance in the starting line-up because of the suspension of John Reilly.
United could have built on the lead soon after but Sean Brennan somehow contrived to shoot wide with the goal at his mercy following the fortuitous bounce of Jordan Keegan’s deflected shot.
Murphy hammered a blistering free-kick just wide for Galway around the half-hour mark, and Monaghan went into the dressing room at half-time no doubt frustrated that they had not registered more emphatically on the scoreboard their greater poise and fluency in open play.
Those feelings would have been strongest in Declan Fabio O’Brien, who just before the interval had met Paul Whelan’s cross with a fine glancing header only to see the effort fall just past the post with Winn beaten.
Mons keeper Gabriel Sava was called into rare action early in the second half, saving from a Lawrence Gaughan header.
But Galway were soon under siege, Winn diving full length to keep out a wicked Sean Brennan free-kick and then O’Brien enduring agonies again when another fine header, this time from Shane Grimes’ cross, managed to elude the target.
The odd speculative attempt from Murphy aside, Galway had to dig in for a time, and were fortunate not to fall further behind around the 61st minute when Winn made an outstanding save from Keegan, their midfielder Oscar Sibanda cleared off the line and then Monaghan captain Alan Byrne crashed a shot off the crossbar.
Galway had their best spell in the game after that, and it took an outstanding Sava save to keep out Ronan Cauldwell’s excellently struck shot from 20 yards.
With ten minutes remaining, the game boiled over with a melee in the centre of the park that resulted in the red cards for Foley and Gavin.
The incident probably affected Galway the more, bringing to an end their brightest spell of the match and seeing them subjected to mounting Monaghan pressure that, with three minutes remaining, yielded the home side's second goal.
Galway appeared to have cleared the initial threat, but the ball hit the corner flag and stayed in play, allowing Jordan Keegan to work his way stylishly into the box and cross for Sean Brennan, ghosting in unmarked from the right flank, to coolly finish into the bottom corner.
Monaghan United: Gabriel Sava; Paul Whelan, Aidan Collins, Alan Byrne, Shane Grimes; Michael Isichei (Paul Byrne 64 (Willo McDonagh 85)), Eric Foley, Ryan Brennan, Jordan Keegan (Jason Marks 88); Sean Brennan, Declan O’Brien.
Subs Not Used: Jake Rossiter, Mark Grace, Paul Byrne, David Byrne.
Bookings: A Byrne (32), R Brennan (61), E Foley (63), S Brennan (93).
Sent Off: E Foley (81).
Galway United: Conor Winn; Paul Sinnott, Yob Son, Laurence Gaughan, Gary Kelly; Jin Gu Kim (Sean Gavin 46), Bobby Ryan, Alan Murphy, Oscar Sibanda (Eduardo Dusi 76); Ronan Cauldwell, (Stephen Walsh 89) Mikey Gilmore.
Subs Not Used: Eric Browne, Darragh Duggan, Willie Enubele, Eric Holland.
Bookings: M Gilmore (35), Yob Son (74), G Kelly (92).
Sent Off: S Gavin (81).
Referee: Derek Tomney.