Tuesday 27 September 2016

Bittersweet night for Galway hearts

Published 21/09/2015 | 02:30

St Patrick’s Athletic goalkeeper Conor O’Malley saves the last penalty to win the EA Sports Cup final
St Patrick’s Athletic goalkeeper Conor O’Malley saves the last penalty to win the EA Sports Cup final

It was a surreal end to a cup final. When a penalty from Galway sub Andy O'Connell was pushed away by Conor O'Malley, the St Patrick's Athletic staff on the sideline knew they had claimed the EA Sports Cup.

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The players on the pitch weren't so sure, though. O'Malley was so focused that he hadn't calculated that his second stop of the shoot-out had secured a 4-3 win.

Some of his team-mates had either forgotten his first save from Jake Keegan or got so caught up in the miss from their centre-half Sean Hoare which would have won it that they didn't realise that the next man up, O'Connell, needed to score to send the drama to 'sudden-death'.

Instead of storming towards O'Malley in celebration, Saints midfielder Greg Bolger emerged from a huddle to take a sixth penalty. Puzzled ref Paul McLaughlin intercepted his superfluous walk.

"Is it over?" asked Bolger, sensing that was the vibe.

"Yes," replied McLaughlin.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"Thank f**k for that."

Even the victors were gripped by the sense of anti-climax that hung over a venue that had heaved with anticipation minutes earlier. Galway heads bowed, with the hosts resigned to a deflating end to their big day.

Deflation

With all due respect to the Saints, this occasion was all about Galway United. It was a first cup final for Tommy Dunne's side, an opportunity to end the city's 18-year wait for a domestic trophy.

For the longer-serving members of Liam Buckley's panel, the winner's medal will reside behind league and FAI Cup honours on the mantelpiece.

"Hopefully we can get a medal somewhere," sighed Galway skipper Paul Sinnott, a local who had spoken eloquently in the preliminaries about how much this fixture meant to him.

For the players who fear they may never get this close to glory again, defeat was a painful experience.

United supporters had mixed emotions. They desperately wanted to prevail but just seeing their club participate in this kind of occasion was a triumph in itself.

Appropriately enough, the first league game at Terryland Park was the visit of Pat's in 1977. Galway Rovers, as they were then known, had gained entry after a cameo in the League Cup.

The match ended in a draw, with the late, great Eamonn Deacy hailed for his 'one man show' in the local press. His legacy lives on in the stadium that was renamed in his honour after his sudden death.

'Chick' left for Aston Villa as the new entity suffered growing pains. There was a bit of a rumpus when a vote was taken in 1981 to replace the Rovers identity with Galway United but the storm passed.

One can look back through the archives and find quirky tales about every League of Ireland member - they've all enjoyed their fair share of ups and downs.

With Galway, however, the strangest chapter is so fresh in the memory that hardcore United fans probably still have the notifications on their phone. When a doomed regime crumbled in 2011, attempts by the Galway United Supporters Trust (GUST) to pick up the pieces and apply for a place in the 2012 league were unsuccessful.

Leading amateur and schoolboy clubs Mervue United and Salthill Devon were duly accepted into the First Division. For two seasons, Galway was represented by two competing teams with dedicated volunteers but no pulling power.

This bizarre state of affairs drew to a close in the winter of 2013 with the establishment of one club for the city again. After securing promotion at the first attempt, Galway FC became Galway United again. Their fans had never stopped chanting 'United' anyway.

As the tension grew on Saturday, that was the cry from a 3,662 crowd which included President Michael D Higgins. In a county where GAA dominates and Connacht Rugby is growing, this showpiece was an opportunity to put the club back on the map.

Dunne hopes the curious customers that created the largest home attendance in several years will find their way back for the all important relegation run-in.

"The players deserve it," he said, "And we need it."

A dozen of his weekend squad are from the area, but the sporting public have been distracted by other matters this summer.

Saturday was a window to lure back cynics who drifted out of the habit when United's story paused or attract newcomers that never connected with the old set-up.

The buzz around the Dyke Road screamed potential. If it proves the catalyst for a successful chapter, the result will be quickly forgotten.

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