Chris Lyons’ last gasp strike has given Drogheda United the advantage as they eye a return to the Premier Division, with the striker’s 94th minute winner enough to earn his team a deserved first leg lead against Finn Harps. Tim Clancy’s team were the more proactive side throughout at United Park and despite certain public assurances to the contrary will consider themselves in the driving seat ahead of Friday’s return in Ballybofey.
Lyons produced a curled finish after Stephen Meaney’s back-heel teed him up just inside the area. That, in turn, cued delirium. It was his 15th goal of the season and with one of Drogheda’s biggest crowds of the year through the turnstiles, none of his previous 22 strikes for the club will have been met with such raucous scenes in the stands. There were flares a plenty but it was Lyons who had lit up the tie.
There was, remarkably, still time for veteran Raffaele Cretaro to strike the post at the other end but the First Division runners-up held on to take a merited lead to Donegal on Friday.
Both teams were dealt blows prior to kick-off with neither Drogs skipper Jake Hyland or Harps Harps attacker Mark Timlin cleared fit to play. Hyland’s injury meant United were unchanged from the 5-1 victory over Cabinteely and a bumper crowd expected more of the same as the Louth men looked to end their two-year exodus from the top flight.
Lyons had been hailed in the build-up by manager Tim Clancy as the second tier’s very best forward and the An Post employee seemed keen to deliver once again from the outset. He had the most clear-cut chance of the opening 45 minutes when he met Adam Wixted’s cross but his header was well saved by Mark Anthony McGinley.
This game was a repeat of last year’s First Division play-off semi-final when Ollie Horgan’s team advanced before going on to claim promotion.
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Nathan Boyle scored in both legs of that tie 12 months ago but the ex-Derry was lacking in accuracy when he skied over Tony McNamee’s cross from just two yards out. In any case, an offside flagged spared the striker’s blushes to some degree. Another Harps attack saw Ruairi Harkin’s deflected cross came back off a post and the home side cleared the danger.
Drogheda’s Mark Doyle was a whisker away from reaching Sean Brennan’s free-kick as the hosts started the second half brighter. Boyneside native Brennan then fired just wide when his quick free kick almost caught out McGinley.
Luke McNally scored an extraordinary treble in Friday night’s win and he caught the eye again but in his more familiar centre-back position, reading the game well and dominating in the air. The 20-year-old was vocal too but not quite as loud as Finn Harps boss Horgan who barked orders from the away dugout all evening. He eventually fell foul of the referee Rob Hennessy.
Horgan had been warned about his conduct after launchin into a tirade when the official did not allow defender Harry Ascroft back on the field after a chance of shorts. When his protests continued, Hennessey gave short shrift and the manager received his marching orders.
The home fans were desperate to see their side turn their second-half dominance into a lead but Harps’ three-man central defence continued to hold firm. That trio did have one nervous moment when Conor Kane’s cross bounced in their area. After McNally poked towards goal and Mark Russell cleared, sub Meaney blasted over.
McNally and Keith Cowan clashed late on – not for the first time in the game – with the incident ending with Cowan hitting the deck after a shove to the chest. The referee booked both players and left it at that. Visiting sub Mikey Place then headed wide before Meaney set up Lyons. A goal and rapturous scenes ensued. At the end of which, Drogheda could reflect on holding a precious lead at the halfway stage in the tie.
DROGHEDA UNITED: Luca Gratzer, James Brown, Luke McNally, Kevin Farragher, Conor Kane, Mark Hughes, Sean Brennan (Jamie Hollywood, 78), Luke Heeney, Adam Wixted (Stephen Meaney, 70), Mark Doyle, Chris Lyons.
FINN HARPS: Mark Anthony McGinley, Jacob Borg, Harry Ascroft, Keith Cowan, Sam Todd, Mark Russell, Gareth Harkin, Ruairi Harkin (Daniel O’Reilly, 78), Tony McNamee, Mark Coyle (Raff Cretaro, 74), Nathan Boyle (Mikey Place, 90).