Saturday 23 September 2017

Fagan sets up bumper payday for Saints

St Patrick's Ath 2 Siroki Brijeg 1
(St Patrick's Ath win 3-2 on aggregate)

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

THE Germans are coming and so, too, is a €170,000 reward for St Patrick's Athletic after another epic European night in Inchicore.



Christy Fagan's extra-time strike proved the difference in a tie where Liam Buckley's side twice gave away the lead. Third time around, they stood firm to deny Bosnia's Siroki Brijeg and set up a lucrative meeting with Bundesliga side Hannover 96.

UEFA regulations mean that next Thursday's first leg will take place in Tallaght, a huge shame from a football point of view given that the Saints have won nine and drawn two of their 11 European matches in Richmond Park this century.

From a cash point of view, however, it will provide extra ticket revenue on top of TV money and the €100,000 prize for making it through to the next round.

The Saints are now the only Irish club left standing, and would never have forgiven themselves if they'd let this golden opportunity pass.

After a late concession in Bosnia last week, the Saints entered this game knowing that a scoreless draw would be enough to secure progression. Yet they had made it clear in the preliminaries that sitting back and defending wasn't an option. It was a test of composure and concentration.

Siroki started brightly, with the returning skipper Dalibor Silic instrumental in the opening stages. However, while the blue shirts did succeed in pressing the hosts back, they never forced a save from Brendan Clarke with the League of Ireland side sticking to the task admirably. Wingers Chris Forrester and Sean O'Connor dropped deep to support their full-backs, meaning that Fagan was isolated for periods, but after overcoming a rocky spell, the Inchicore men gradually began to assert themselves.

And, unlike Siroki, they were more incisive in the final third, with encouragement provided by the shaky visiting keeper Luka Bilobrk. That said, he was in the right place to make two stops arising from set piece situations. Firstly, Greg Bolger steered a header at Bilorbk following an inswinger from the increasingly influential James Chambers. Then, from a subsequent free, Forrester flicked goalwards, Bilobrk fumbled, and centre-half Kenny Browne somehow contrived to miss the rebound.

The Saints continued to probe and, six minutes before the break, they eventually got their reward. It followed a controlled spell of possession in their own half which resulted in play being spread to left winger O'Connor, who apologised in the match programme for lashing out at team-mate Ger O'Brien in Sunday's 1-1 draw with UCD.

O'Connor's deep cross asked questions of Bilobrk who flapped unconvincingly. Forrester stroked the ball back into the danger area and while Fagan was unable to make a connection, John Russell picked up the pieces and confidently converted.

It left Siroki with no option but to go for it after the resumption. Silic and coach Marijan Bloudek chatted at length on the pitch before the restart and, clearly, the message was to be braver. Suddenly, Clarke was a busy man, pushing an effort from the imposing Kresimir Kordic over the bar. Still, the Bosnian approach was always going to provide openings on the counter attack, and a purposeful break resulted in a shot from O'Connor when, perhaps, a pass was a better option.

That wastefulness was punished in the 63rd minute. With several six footers in their ranks, the Bosnians fancied their prospects in the air and, for the second week in succession, they profited in that regard with defender Ivica Dzidic rising highest in the box to power a header beyond Clarke.

As full-time approached, a header from Greg Bolger was the best the Saints could produce and another half an hour was needed to settle this tie.

After a gruelling schedule in recent weeks, there was evidence of fatigue in the home ranks as well, with errors a feature of the first period of extra-time. But the highlight came in the final minute, when Russell won a free that was lofted to the far post where Fagan collected a Forrester header to smash emphatically into the bottom corner.

A nervous 15 minutes followed, and with four of those remaining, an ominous silence descended as Siroki sub Mateo Roskam was put into space. As Clarke advanced from his goal, Roskam dithered and Saints right back Ger O'Brien produced a heroic last-ditch tackle. It secured a famous victory.

St Patrick's Athletic -- Clarke, O'Brien, Browne, Kenna, Bermingham; Chambers; Forrester (Kelly 105), Bolger, Russell, O'Connor (Meenan 88); Fagan (Flood 110)

Siroki Brijeg -- Bilobrk, Coric, I Dzidic (D Dzidic 83), Jese, Bertosa; Wagner, Zlomislic; Bloudek (Roskam 63), Baiano (Ivankovic 83), Silic; Kordic

Ref -- Deniz Aytekin (Germany).

Irish Independent

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