The game of the weekend in the League of Ireland had to be the basement battle between Finn Harps and Cork City at Ballybofey.
Both sides have struggled for results all season but hadn’t been cut adrift of the rest of the league table. The winner would move within either one or two points of automatic safety while the loser would be cast either four or five points adrift of that mark. With games fast running out it would be an almost impossible barrier to overcome.
As it turned out an entertaining 1-1 draw was played out. Cork City were the better team over the 90+ minutes and created much the better chances. Four remarkable saves from man-of-the-match Mark McGinley in the Harps goal meant that the visitors were kept at bay except for a 58th minute 18-yard strike from Dylan McGlade with a deflection giving the wrongfooted netminder no chance.
Such was the Rebel Army’s dominance that it seemed that McGlade’s first goal of the season had come at a crucial time and would give the leesiders a precious three points. However, as the game entered its final 25 minutes they retreated. They were punished when Rafaelle Cretaro unleashed a 20-yard scorcher low past the stranded McNulty in the visitors’ goal on 75 minutes.
From there, City pushed forward once again but couldn’t trouble the colossal McGinley, who also distributed the ball very well.
The result means that Harps are three points adrift of automatic safety with Cork one point worse off with five games and six games left to play respectively. With games fast running out it looks like both sides will fight out the remainder of the season looking to avoid the automatic relegation place, though Shelbourne and Derry City could yet be dragged into the relegation scrap if either Harps or Cork go on an unlikely run of putting a few good results together.
At the other end of the table, a thumping 0-4 win for Shamrock Rovers at a very much second-string Dundalk means the Hoops now need just seven points from their last five league games to win their first League of Ireland Premier Division title since 2011.
The game at Oriel Park had 100 supporters permitted to attend. The fact that they were all Lilywhite supporters will mean that they won’t have felt particularly lucky to have been there. Observers from Dundalk’s opponents next Thursday (KI of the Faroe Islands) won’t have learned anything easier as last year’s League of Ireland winners made ten changes to the line-up from the penalty shootout triumph over Sheriff Tiraspol last Thursday.
The highlight of the night for home fans was that the teams were greeted onto the pitch to the sound of “I Shot The Sheriff” played over the PA system. Rovers dominated almost the entire match and were full value for their 0-4 win.
Man-of-the-match Jack Byrne opened the scoring late in the first half in front of the watching Ireland manager Stephen Kenny, Byrne bundled the ball home at the second attempt having scuffed his first shot.
David McMillan’s own goal made it 2-0 shortly afterwards as he diverted Liam Scales’ header into his own net before Aaron McEneff made it 0-3 from the penalty spot on the stroke of half-time.
The highlight of the match was the final goal which came seven minutes from time. Byrne, running away from goal, rounded goalkeeper Aaron McCarey. While falling and from the tightest of angles Byrne placed the ball home in off the post to the net for what was a special goal.
Elsewhere, Andre Wright completed a remarkable 2-1 smash-and-grab victory for Bohemians over Derry City at Dalymount Park on Friday night.
Keith Long’s side have had a dip in form in recent weeks but a Keith Ward penalty and Wright’s winner, both scored well past the 90 minute mark mean that The Gypsies look to be all but guaranteed a European placed finish for next season.
The Candystripes had led since the second minute when Walter Figueira threaded the ball through to James Akintunde, whose dink went in off the underside of the crossbar.
Derry deserved the three points but were pegged back well past the 90 minute mark when Ross Tierney was taken down in the area and Ward dispatched the penalty confidently. Amazingly, Bohs had one last chance when Anto Breslin delivered a free kick from the flank into a crowded Derry box. The ball spilled to the well-placed Wright who made no mistake.
Matty Smith’s stunning ninth-minute volley from 20 yards into the top half of the net was enough to earn three points for Waterford and a 1-0 win over Sligo Rovers at the RSC.
The result was just the tonic for Waterford who had been battered 6-1 by Shamrock Rovers last time out last Monday night.
The result was also of crucial importance as it keeps The Blues well in the hunt for a European place, while defeat would have seen them slip out of those European spots.
St. Patrick’s Athletic got back to winning ways for the first time in five matches as they saw off Shelbourne 2-0 at Richmond Park.
The hosts took the lead in the 17th minute through a cracking Chris Forrester rocket. He got on the ball following a quick throw-in from McClelland and aimed his 25 yard effort into the top corner of the net. Colin McCabe did his best to keep the ball out but couldn’t get enough of a hand on it.
Pat’s effectively killed off Shels with a 55th minute header from Rory Feely. He rose highest to glance the ball into the net following Robbie Benson’s excellent corner-kick.
Pat’s are now just one point off a potential European place while Shels still have work to do to avoid the relegation battle in their last five games.
In the First Division, A 0-1 win at Bray Wanderers saw Drogheda United leapfrog the Wicklow outfit to go top of the table and into the only automatic promotion spot.
A 30th-minute Mark Doyle header — his 12th goal of the season — was enough to put Drogheda a point clear at the top with four games left to play.
Cabinteely were surprisingly hammered by second from bottom Wexford, who have little to play for other than avoiding finishing bottom of the table.
Cabo are still three points clear of the chasing pack in the hunt from the final promotion play-off place as Cobh Ramblers surprising won 0-1 against Galway United at Eamonn Deasy Park.
Galway had come into the game in great form having won five-in-a-row (that is all five matches under new manager John Caulfield) while Ramblers had lost their last three matches.
Ramblers scored the only goal of the game on Friday night though when the home side failed to deal with the ball as it came into the box from a corner. Ian Turner drove the ball emphatically into the bottom corner of the net to give Stuart Ashton’s side a ninth minute lead. The east Cork outfit were good value for their win and could have added to the solitary score later on.
A bad night for Galway ended in the 90th minute when Mikey Place was red carded for a terrible tackle on John Kavanagh. Both sides are now three points off the last promotion play-off place.
Longford Town meanwhile were too good for Athlone, winning 0-4 at Lissywollen
Rob Manley opened the scoring to give Town a 0-1 half-time lead, before further strikes from Sam Verdon and Karl Chambers, as well as an own goal from Scott Delaney secured a comfortable win.
The hosts’ bad night was compounded late on, when Lee Duffy was sent off.
Longford will now effectively secure a play-off place with one more win from their last four games and they still have an outside chance of automatic promotion while Athlone have little to play for in their last four games.
Shamrock Rovers II meanwhile were hammered 2-5 by UCD. The Students are very much in the promotion play-off race while Shamrock Rovers II are bottom of the table having lost their last six matches. With no relegation from the First Division, their last few games of the season have little riding on them.