Dave Donnelly reports from the UCD Bowl
St Patrick’s Athletic remain hot on the heels of fourth-placed Derry City as they eked out a 1-0 win over a depleted UCD side in Belfield on Friday night.
Kevin Toner’s bullet header just past the half-hour proved the difference as Harry Kenny’s side remain level with the Candystripes, who won 4-1 at Cork City, albeit with two more games played.
It wasn’t a pretty game by any stretch as the Saints outmuscled and, at times, besieged a UCD side who’ve had to adopt a more pragmatic style in response to a player exodus.
Captain Gary O’Neill and Ireland under-21 winger Neil Farrugia this week joined Timmy Molloy, Kevin Coffey and Conor Crowley in the exit door, with more departures due in the coming days.
With centre-half Josh Collins out injured and right-back Dan Tobin suspended, this was a very callow Students side with under-19 Aaron McGrath handed his senior debut in midfield.
The Saints have some youth on their side too and Kenny handed a full league debut to 18-year-old striker Jake Walker, who scored the winner against Finn Harps two weeks ago.
Walker was the first to threaten the goal as Ian Bermingham turned Mikey Drennan’s cross back inside, and the teenager was unlucky to see his floating header graze the roof of the net.
Drennan’s set-piece delivery to the back post caused UCD untold difficulty and he picked out Walker with a free-kick and his header forced goalkeeper Conor Kearns into an uncertain punch.
Simon Madden forced the first save out of Kearns as he drove at goal from a tight angle as the Saints continued to dominate before a water break broke the game up after 17 minutes.
UCD enjoyed a purple patch thereafter, Conor Davis’ slick through-ball just evading Yoyo Mahdy before Sean McDonald curled over following more good work from Davis.
That deep set-piece delivery tactic continued to yield dividends for the Saints as Chris Forrester aimed for Walker at the back post, but this time captain Liam Scales beat him to the punch.
From the resulting corner, Drennan crossed deep to the back post where Toner arrived with pace and burst the net with a powerful header that left Kearns with no chance.
The Athletic upped the tempo in search of a second and Walker glanced a header wide before Scales just about nicked the ball away from Drennan as he looked to race through on goal.
A wonderful ball over the top from Lennon saw Bermingham scamper in behind O’Farrell and he managed to get his shot away but this time Kearns saved brilliantly at his near post.
There was one nervy moment late in the half as Brendan Clarke dropped Jason McClelland’s corner in front of McGrath but, after his first effort was blocked, a free out was very generously awarded.
The Athletic looked to kill the game off after the break and pinned UCD into their own half for the majority of the opening ten minutes, though with little goalmouth action accruing.
UCD had to wait until the 63rd minute for their first shot on target as Mark Dignam drove upfield and passed to Mahdy, who flicked the ball over the top for Davis, but his shot on the turn was easily saved.
The Students had plenty of the ball in the final quarter but to little avail and the best chance would fall to Pats’ Darragh Markey to finish the tie four minutes from time.
The substitute burst through the defence but, one on one with Kearns, the ball held up under his feet and the Ireland under-21 keeper was out quickly to clear the danger.
It’s ten defeats on the bounce now for the Students, who saw Finn Harps jump above them with a 2-0 win over Sligo Rovers as UCD travel to the Bit o’ Red on Monday.
UCD: Conor Kearns; Evan Farrell, Liam Scales, Mark Dignam; Richie O’Farrell, Aaron McGrath, Sean McDonald (Luke Boore 81), Paul Doyle, Jason McClelland; Conor Davis, Yoyo Mahdy (Danu Kinsella Bishop 84).
Subs not used: Gavin Sheridan (gk), Darragh Corcoran.
Booked: Liam Scales.
St Patrick’s Athletic: Brenda Clarke; Kevin Toner, Lee Desmond, Ciaran Kelly; Simon Madden, Jamie Lennon, Cian Coleman (Conor Clifford 74), Chris Forrester (Darragh Markey 81), Ian Bermingham; Jake Walker (Gary Shaw 72), Mikey Drennan.
Subs not used: Barry Murphy (gk), Rhys McCabe, James Doona, Dean Clarke.
Booked: Gary Shaw (90+2).
Referee: Ray Matthews.
Extratime.ie Player of the Match: Jamie Lennon (St Patrick’s Athletic).