North the hero as Sligo edge epic FAI Cup final
Drogheda United 2 Sligo Rovers 3
Sligo Rovers staged a heart-stopping late ambush to claim their fifth FAI Cup final – and break ten-man Drogheda United hearts after the Louth men had led this Lansdowne Road thriller for well over an hour.
This was the greatest decider ever.
Englishman Anthony Elding scored the winner goal four minutes into injury-time, just two minutes after Drogheda thought they had rescued a last-gasp shot at an extra 30 minutes.
Sligo had to win the most dramatic FAI Cup final in history twice – with just four minutes left, Danny North had put his side 2-1 up after a moment of genius from Cameroon World Cup veteran Joseph Ndo.
Drogheda were reduced to ten men after captain Derek Prendergast complained too furiously that referee Paul Tuite had not blown his whistle before Ndo’s free.
But Ryan Brennan’s drive, two minutes into an allocated eight minutes of injury-time, seemed to offer his side a lifeline after Sligo also went down to ten men when Gavin Peers was forced off injured.
However, substitute Danny North, who had levelled matters for Sligo in the 78th minute, turned provider and he set up Elding for a thunderous finish to stop the hearts of the 17,573 attendance.
Upon a pudding of a pitch; hardly a suitable setting for Irish football’s blue riband, Drogheda were quicker into their stride, their hassling and harrying game smothered sluggish Sligo’s silkier approach.
Their star playmakers, Kieran Dijali, Raff Cretaro and 37-year-old Cameroon World Cup veteran Ndo, were snuffed out of the action by a tight-marking Drogheda outfit.
It wasn’t just a clash of styles though; Drogheda’s classy 13th minute opening goal was brilliant in its construction, stemming from a Sligo corner from which, three passes later, Paul O’Connor’s arrowed finish was nestling in Gary Rogers’ net.
O’Connor started and finished the move; Ryan Brennan, one of two brothers in the side, burst through the middle and a sweet nutmeg allowed him room to find right-sided midfielder David Cassidy rampaging down the left.
A perfectly timed over-lapping run from full-back Shane Grimes allowed him the space to reach the by-line and cut back a low cross which allowed O’Connor to finish what he started.
Drogheda could have won the game but were denied by a controversial decision from referee Paul Tuite.
Indeed, they bemoaned a disallowed goal of their own and seemed to have more just cause, as Ryan Brennan was harshly adjudged to have pushed Alan Keane when looping a fine header beyond Rogers in the 63rd minute.
The tempo was relentless from end to end, Drogheda desperately trying to land a knock-out blow as Sligo brought North on alongside Elding as the pressure intensified on the leaders’ defence.
They couldn’t hold out. The dam burst with 12 minutes left.
From Sligo’s eighth corner, Elding’s flick-on rebounded off Alan Byrne into the path of the unmarked North at the far post; his first touch of the game, a swivelling, left-footed volley, smashed into the roof of the net.
Drogheda hearts sunk. Briefly, they would be lifted. In a few minutes they would be broken.
Drogheda United: Schlingermann, Daly, McNally, Prendergast, Grimes, Byrne (Grimes 90), Cassidy, O'Conor (Rusk 77), R Brennan, G Brennan, O'Brien.
Sligo Rovers: Rogers, Keane, Peers, Henderson (McMillan 65), Davoren, Ventre, Ndo, Cretaro, Greene (Gaynor 84), Elding.
Referee: Paul Tuite (Dublin)