Relegation fight set for nerve-tingling climax
Published 30/10/2015 | 02:30
Twelve months ago, the final day of the regular League of Ireland season was dominated by a title decider featuring two teams in search of glory.
Tonight, the intrigue revolves around a pair of sides at the bottom that would happily settle for purgatory.
For Drogheda United and Limerick, the target is to do enough to book a place in next week's two-legged promotion/relegation play-off. The alternative is the pain of automatic relegation.
Drogheda are two points ahead of Limerick and therefore have their fate in their own hands when they travel to take on a Shamrock Rovers side that can still nick second if Cork City slip up against Bohemians at Dalymount Park.
On paper, the Louth club face a tougher fixture than Limerick, who are in Sligo to take on a side relieved to be out of the equation after their win in Inchicore last week.
Put simply, the Shannonsiders have to win. But that will be enough to get them into 11th position only if Drogheda fail to win.
Both dressing-rooms have to bounce back from disappointment last week.
Drogheda had a chance to make life easier for themselves at home to Longford but they slumped to a 3-0 loss. Meanwhile, Limerick's reverse at the hands of Shamrock Rovers in Markets Field was a second successive blow on their own turf in front of an expectant crowd.
Still, considering that Martin Russell's charges took just six points from their opening 21 games and only registered their first league win on August 1 - against tonight's opponents - they continue to draw comfort from making it to the end of the road alive.
"If you'd said ten weeks ago that we'd have a chance of going into the last game then we'd have taken it," said right-sided midfielder Ian Turner.
"We're trying to stay positive. It's hard to put your finger on what's changed in our last two games. Before the Derry game we were scoring freely but we didn't do ourselves justice.
"We wanted a reaction against Rovers and, while some parts of our play were good, we shot ourselves in the foot."
Defensive errors set Pat Fenlon's troops on their way. When he reflected on the game, Turner took heart from the assured nature of the Rovers display considering that Limerick now need a favour from them. "I'd fancy them against Drogheda," he said.
Drogheda will be hoping that Sligo can replicate their display against Pat's and, with the pressure off, Micky Adams' side could be a different proposition.
They haven't inspired confidence this term, however, and Drogheda caretaker boss Mark Kinsella - who remains in charge despite Pete Mahon being drafted in as 'first team manager' for licensing purposes - cannot bank on good news from The Showgrounds.
It should be a nervous night for all concerned, and those emotions will also be felt in Donegal where Finn Harps seek to book a place in the play-off with the 11th placed Premier team - they hold a 1-0 lead over UCD heading into the second leg of the First Division section.
The other angle of interest this evening surrounds the final European place. Remarkably, due to the increase in UEFA prize-money, the value of finishing fourth rather than fifth is an extra €205,000.
Pat's were in control of fourth but a dreadful run of seven losses in nine games has left them a point short of wrapping it up. Another slip in Galway would open the door to Bohemians if the Gypsies capped a superb year by defeating Cork.
There will be no stress at Oriel Park, the scene of the 2014 drama, but the picture will be the same with Stephen Kenny's back-to-back league winners receiving the trophy following their dead rubber with Bray.
The celebrations are already over, though, with minds focused on Sunday week's FAI Cup showdown with Cork.
Kenny is also looking to next year, with Derry playmaker Patrick McEleney on the shopping list, although compensation could pose a stumbling block.