A let-off for Longford as the Drogs fire blanks
Soccer, SSE AirtricityLeague First Division: Drogheda Utd 0 Longford Town 1
How different the First Division table would look today if Drogheda United had managed to take their opportunities in both this season's matches against unbeaten leaders Longford Town.
When the sides met in City Calling Stadium in March the Boynesiders bombarded Lee Steacy's goal in the first half, but the keeper produced a man-of-the-match display and Longford struck three times unanswered after the break.
Then in the return game last Friday night the Drogs simply weren't clinical enough in front of goal as they passed up several clear-cut opportunities on their way to another defeat that should have been a victory.
Both losses could quite easily have been wins, and had Drogheda picked up maximum points they'd now be sitting at the summit, with Longford way down in fifth place.
There are small margins between success and failure in sport, and even though Tim Clancy's men remain joint highest scorers in Division 1 they will surely have to improve their shot conversion rate or face the prospect of finishing outside the play-off positions.
The sharply contrasting bold red and yellow jerseys of the teams, together with the fetching sky blue worn by the match officials, helped create a colourful occasion and we were all set for a rip-roaring top-of-the-table clash, albeit one played in front of a smaller than anticipated attendance.
Events in the third minute lent further support to that theory as James Brown and Luke Gallagher combined to put Luke Heeney away down the right and his cross was turned in by Chris Lyons, only for the linesman's flag to intervene.
Lyons was presented with another chance in the fourth minute, only to fluff his shot badly, before Dean Byrne wasted an opportunity for Longford with a heavy touch, after Jake Hyland has coughed up possession in midfield.
Drogheda's high pressing game led to another good opening in the 11th minute as Stephen Meaney fed Lyons and his lovely flick picked out Heeney whose powerful shot was beaten away by Steacy.
Longford threatened the Boynesiders' goal for the first time after 20 minutes when Byrne and Aodh Dervin combined to set up Aaron Dobbs whose toe-poke drifted narrowly wide.
Dobbs probably thought he'd scored in the 25th minute when he got on the end of an Anto Breslin cross and turned brilliantly to create a clear opening, but his well-struck shot from point-blank range was superbly turned round the post by Luca Gratzer.
A series of corners followed and Mark Doyle had to block a Mick McDonnell header on the line as the midlanders began to turn the screw.
However, the Drogs survived that mini-rally and after Conor Kane forced a corner at the other end Luke McNally headed wide from Heeney's set-piece.
The first half had ticked into injury time at that stage, but there was still time for Longford to snatch an all-important lead goal as Steacy's quick kickout found Kevin Knight on the left touchline.
Drogheda were too slow getting back and Knight then released the onrushing Dobbs who beat the offside trap, bore down on goal and produced a pinpoint finish to the bottom left corner of Gratzer's net.
Against the team with comfortably the best defensive record in either division, Clancy's men now had a mountain to climb.
They seemed badly disjointed at times, with two players contesting the same ball on a number of occasions. Nerves were creeping in too - for example when Gratzer badly mis-cued two clearances which didn't get above the ground and fortunately got away with both mistakes.
Save for a Gallagher piledriver that struck Dean Zambra, Drogheda offered nothing in attack - until the 59th minute, that is, when Lyons did really well to prevent a ball going over the endline and McNally's subsequent hook into the six-yard area was met by Doyle who flashed a header across goal, failing to test Steacy.
A very similar chance presented itself to Hyland on 67 minutes. Mark Hughes spread the ball wide with a great pass to Brown and his brilliant cross should have been finished off, but instead the captain nodded well wide of the target.
Hughes and Doyle then combined to create a shooting opportunity for Lyons, but again he didn't make a clean contact and Steacy wasn't tested. Lyons then did well to get in front of his marker to flash a glacing header wide from a free kick to the near post by substitute Sean Brennan.
Longford posed no goal threat whatsoever in the second half until the 74th minute when they passed up a glorious opportunity. Sam Verdon, who had just come on the field, collected a long clearance and when two defenders chased after him he side-footed towards the completely unmarked fellow sub Karl Chambers. With time to pick his spot, Chambers shot over the bar to keep the game in the melting pot.
That was the only goal attempt Longford had in the entire second half, and for the last 15 minutes they had to work overtime to keep Drogheda out.
A foul by Dervin on Doyle right on the edge of the box presented Brennan with a scoring opportunity, but Steacy dived low to his left to parry his free kick and the rebound cannoned off fellow sub James Clarke and rose over the bar.
Brennan was making a big impact and he crossed for Meaney who miscued his header, before the striker got on the end of a Kane centre and flashed another effort across goal.
Entering stoppage time there was controversy when Dervin went down in the centre circle, apparently injured, and the referee called on the Longford physio, only for Dervin to refuse treatment, realising he'd have to go off the field momentarily just as Drogheda lined up a free kick.
Mr Connolly stuck to his guns and Dervin had to go until after the free was taken, but what appeared to be a time-wasting exercise from the midlanders didn't cost them dear as Brennan rolled the set piece to Lyons who sent a tame shot into the arms of Steacy.
A generous five minutes had been added on by the referee, and it was in the 95th minute that Ciaran Kelly struck a precious equaliser against Longford in this fixture last season.
But despite Drogheda creating a couple more half-chances and throwing keeper Gratzer into the box for a last-gasp corner kick, there was to be no dramatic finish this time round as the league leaders somehow held out.