A glimmer of optimism in the face of defeat
Drogheda United 0 Cork City 1
The slow, painful journey towards seemingly inevitable relegation continued on Friday night, but not before Drogheda United had produced arguably their best performance of the season.
Whether the vast improvement has anything to do with manager Pete Mahon's rant in this newspaper last week is a moot point, but there were encouraging signs against St Pat's three days later, and this was another step in the right direction.
The desperately poor scoring record now reads three goals in nearly 20 hours of football and Drogheda have failed to taste victory in their last 15 games, but with displays like this the goals and wins will come - even though it is surely much too late to save their Premier status.
After an uncertain first five minutes the Boynesiders came good and there was an energy to their play that bore the hallmarks of a team fighting for their lives. And it wasn't just their battling qualities that were to the fore - they proved they could play some entertaining football.
Thomas Byrne and Conor Kane put together some superb combinations on the left flank, and on the opposite side Shane Elworthy had his best game in a Drogheda jersey, while recent signing Jack Bayly's energetic display was another eye-catching feature.
Indeed, come the latter stages we saw the unusual sight of champions elect Cork City time-wasting to protect their slender single-goal lead.
Luke Gallagher's withdrawal owing to a loose tooth that requires an operation left Drogheda without three centre-halves and so left-back Stephen Dunne stepped in alongside Lloyd Buckley in an untried partnership, with teenagers Elworthy and Kane completing the back four.
The home supporters surely feared the worst against an away side licking their wounds after losing their season-long unbeaten record against Bohemians four nights earlier.
This is the Cork team who had put a total of nine goals past Stephen McGuinness in the two previous meetings this year, but John Caulfield's side are now minus their talisman Sean Maguire who is playing for Preston in the English Championship.
Perhaps Maguire would have scored after 31 seconds when Stephen Dooley released Conor Ellis who dribbled round McGuinness before firing wide.
Garry Buckley headed over the bar from the resulting corner and in the eighth minute Karl Sheppard's driven cross was well parried by McGuinness.
At this stage the breakthrough seemed inevitable, but Drogheda eased their way into the game and on 14 minutes they had a great chance to score. Bayly provided the initial forward momentum and the ball was worked wide via Jake Hyland to Elworthy. He centred for Chris Mulhall who showed good awareness to tee up Byrne on the edge of the box.
The Tenure youngster, still looking for his first Drogheda goal, aimed just inside Mark McNulty's left-hand post, but the ball grazed the wrong side of the upright, with the keeper well beaten.
Another flurry of scoring opportunities came Cork's way coming up to the half-hour, with Gearoid Morrissey testing McGuinness from distance, Alan Bennett heading wide and Sheppard seeing his close-range header scrambled off the line by Sean Brennan.
Sheppard then crossed for Ellis to flick the ball against the near post, before the creator had a go himself and was denied by the diving McGuinness.
Drogheda had a glimpse of goal from a corner kick in the 31st minute, but when Sean Russell whipped the delivery in towards the back post Mulhall used his hand in attempting to divert the ball past McNulty and the eagle-eyed referee Rob Hennessy rightly booked him.
The hosts then put together a great move from open play as Kane and Byrne worked the ball out of defence superbly to Bayly who galloped forward before switching play to the right via the outside of his right boot.
Russell was up in support and although his cross was half-cleared, Hyland was lurking just outside the box and sent a crisp half-volley whistling just wide.
In the 15 minutes leading up to the interval Drogheda had four players booked as their understandable annoyance over some of the match official's decisions threatened to boil over.
The break therefore came at an opportune moment and the opening exchanges in the second half were even.
A half-chance presented itself to Drogheda on 53 minutes when Russell whipped in a superb free kick towards the back post and as two Cork heads failed to clear the ball dropped unexpectedly towards the unmarked Hyland who couldn't direct it goal-wards.
In the blink of an eye the Leesiders had the ball in the net for what turned out to be the winning goal. A long clearance was flicked on by Ellis to the advancing Dooley and as McGuinness - perhaps a bit rashly - sprinted from his goal to meet him Dooley coolly slipped the ball through his legs with enough power to take it into the net before Dunne could get back.
It was a soft goal to concede, and Dooley could have had another just after the hour mark when he cleverly worked space before firing over the bar.
The hard-working Mulhall finally got some small reward for his efforts when he was clattered from behind by Bennett just outside the box in a central position.
Referee Hennessy awarded the free and the downed Mulhall crouched on the turf with a rueful look, no doubt wondering why the official hadn't penalised the Cork defenders much earlier in the game.
Disappointingly, Russell's well struck free kick was comfortably held by McNulty and it was to be Drogheda's only shot on target in the entire 90 minutes.
Pete Mahon emptied his bench in the last quarter, starting by withdrawing Brennan who had done well to last the pace, having taken a heavy knock, but Cork's back four held their nerve until the 87th minute when Mulhall made a menace of himself to win possession out on the right, dribbled into the box and seemed to have his legs taken from him by Conor McCormack.
However, Mr Hennessy was unconvinced and despite throwing centre-back Buckley up as an extra attacker in the latter stages the Boynesiders couldn't fashion another chance.
Indeed, in stoppage time Jimmy Keohane rattled the crossbar and Kieran Sadlier was denied by McGuinness as Cork threatened to put a more comfortable look on the scoreline.