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Wednesday 1 October 2014

Relegation? You've got to be joking!

MARCUS CAVAROLI

Published 26/12/2012 | 21:55

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THE bookies and pundits both got their predictions completely wrong as unfancied Drogheda United enjoyed a season to remember in 2012.

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Tipped by many for yet another battle against relegation and some to make the dreaded drop to Division 1, manager Mick Cooke masterminded a stunning campaign, culminating in a second-place finish, an EA Sports Cup triumph and qualification for Europe and the Setanta Cup.

The fact that all this was achieved on a shoe-string budget and with a part-time squad made it all the more enjoyable, and of course the big question mark now will be whether the wily Cooke and sidekick Robbie Horgan - with the help of the club's board - can steer the Drogs to even loftier heights.

Back in March Cooke was full of optimism that his charges could compete in the top half of the table, encouraged by the quality of signings such as Declan O'Brien, Gabriel Sava, Ryan Brennan, Derek Prendergast and Eric Foley. All a far cry from 12 months previously when the manager only took charge on the eve of the campaign and inherited someone else's squad.

Having secured the Jim Malone Cup in the annual pre-season friendly against Dundalk, the prospect of kicking off the league campaign with a home game against 2011 champions Shamrock Rovers should have been a mouth-watering one, except that Drogheda had seven frontline players out - including the three Brennan brothers who were all suspended. A 2-1 defeat ensued.

But by the end of March it was clear that something special was brewing. The Drogs came from 2-0 down to beat Cork at Turner's Cross, held on with nine men to draw the first derby against Dundalk, walloped Bray 4-2 on their own patch and then defeated Derry with fine goals from Ryan Brennan and Brian Gannon.

And the road to the EA Sports Cup Final began in style with a 5-2 win in front of a few hardy souls at Athlone.

Yours truly said after the Derry match that Drogheda United were emerging as 'the League of Ireland's darling club of 2012' and 'playing with a swagger that makes them arguably the most entertaining team to watch'.

It was certainly an eventful start to the season for captain Paul Crowley. He scored the winner in the Malone Cup game and required 28 stitches in a horrific leg wound sustained in the last minute, and in the league meeting with Dundalk had two more stitches after being sent off. He was on target again against Athlone but then had another spell out after breaking two fingers against Derry.

Starting April in third place in the table behind the full-time Sligo and Shamrock Rovers clubs, Drogheda went through that month unbeaten, beating Monaghan and Shelbourne and drawing against St Patrick's and UCD to remain within touching distance of leaders Sligo.

It was good news off the field too as the club announced a new two-year shirt sponsorship deal with Scotch Hall.

When the Boynesiders failed to win a league match in May the critics were quick to come out and say that the bubble had burst. Once again they were short key players when facing pace-setters Sligo and suffered the consequences, and they also went down 3-1 in Tallaght in a game where all four Brennans played and the eldest, Killian, was prominent for the winners.

Draws against Bohemians and Cork were disappointing results too and the Drogs ended May fifth in the table, 10 points behind Sligo. Even the 6-1 FAI Cup win against Mayfield was somewhat flattering, with Johnny Breen helping himself to a six-minute hat-trick after the Cork outfit had been reduced to 10 men.

June began with a thrilling 2-1 win at Oriel Park as keeper Gabriel Sava denied a battling Dundalk with a series of magnificent saves, and Robbie Horgan's testimonial lit up the midseason break before the Drogs returned to action with a league win over Bray and an EA Sports Cup penalty shootout success against the Lilywhites.

At the same time news was emerging that left-back Shane Grimes had tested positive for a banned substance following a random drugs test after the game against Bohemians in May. Grimes had consumed an energy drink which, unknown to him, contained a banned stimulant and was subsequently banned from playing for eight months.

Such a development could easily have become a distraction, but instead the team spirit remained as strong as ever, judging by the way Drogheda ended June with a stunning 3-0 win at The Brandywell.

Even better was to follow as Peter Hynes scored the second goal in a 2-0 win away to St Patrick's after Ryan Brennan had been sent off, a result that saw the Boynesiders jump back into second place.

Gavin Brennan then scored his fourth goal in three games in the 93rd minute to snatch a win away to Shelbourne, and when Declan O'Brien netted his 100th

for the club against UCD in their first home game for 32 days the Drogs had won eight consecutive matches.

August saw seven games played in a punishing spell of 27 days, starting with a trip to Sligo where the Drogs' hopes of going top were shattered by a 4-1 defeat. But revenge wasn't long in arriving - 48 hours in fact - as a 2-1 win over the Bit O'Red saw Cooke's team through to the EA Sports Cup Final.

The remainder of the month was a mixed bag - defeats by Cork and Shamrock Rovers, narrow wins against Wexford (FAI Cup) and Bohemians, and then two goals in the last three minutes to beat Dundalk 3-2, with John Sullivan netting the winner.

At this stage the title looked beyond Drogheda, with Sligo nine points clear, while it was a three-way battle for second spot.

The Boynesiders began September by completing nine-point whitewashes against both Bray and Derry and ended that month with a hard-fought draw against St Pat's to lie a point adrift of them in third place.

It was all about the cups in between, starting with an agonising exit from the FAI competition on penalties to St Pat's after Liam Buckley's men grabbed a fluke stoppage-time equaliser to force extra time.

Five days later the Drogs had to play Shamrock Rovers in their own backyard in the EA Sports Cup Final. How would they respond to such a heartbreaking and energy-sapping defeat? The answer was emphatic as goals from Declan O'Brien, an og and Eric Foley secured a 3-1 victory in another game that featured all four Brennan brothers.

Ryan scored the decisive second goal as October kicked off with another supreme effort to overcome Shels 2-1 in their seventh game in 24 days. It was 12 days before the Drogs played again, but the rest did them no good as they suffered a shock 10 reverse at UCD, with Sligo now assured of the title.

It so happened that the champions were the visitors to Hunky Dorys Park in the penultimate game, with the maths simple - beat Sligo and a place in the Europa League was assured. Alan McNally opened the scoring, but Drogheda conceded 30 seconds into the second half and with 88 minutes played and Declan O'Brien having been sent off, a nervy final-day clash at Bohemians looked certain.

However, the team spirit that was evident throughout the season showed its hand yet again as Brian Gannon popped up with a priceless winner to send the old stadium into raptures.

The Drogs were missing their three top goalscorers for the trip to Dalymount - O'Brien, Gavin Brennan and Peter Hynes - but they were chomping at the bit after being snubbed by the PFAI, with not a single United player included in their team of the year.

Bohs bore the brunt of the squad's feelings as Tiarnan Mulvenna's hat-trick and another McNally strike secured a 4-1 victory and second in the table, just four points adrift of Sligo.

Recognition came belatedly as Cooke was nominated for RTE Manager of the Year, while Ryan Brennan had a trial with Sheffield Wednesday recently, but as things stand the key squad members have been retained, and with additional signings such as Gary O'Neill and David Cassidy there's every reason to be confident of another successful year in 2013.

The icing on the cake at the end of an outstanding 12 months would be positive news about a new stadium, and with the submission of the planning application said to be imminent it's a case of fingers crossed that there's no repeat of the horrendous complications that scuppered the previous application back in 2008.

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