'Long' wait goes on as bogey side strike late
The Longford Town jinx struck again at City Calling Stadium on Saturday night as Drogheda United's promotion push suffered a setback with this third straight defeat to the midlanders.
Neale Fenn's charges had found a way to win both previous meetings this year despite their goal leading a charmed life at times, and they made it nine points from nine against their great rivals with a late winner they scarcely deserved.
The worrying aspect for Drogheda is that they will probably cross swords with Longford over two legs at some stage in the play-offs - if they qualify - and that will be a particularly difficult challenge at the Strokestown Road venue which has become a real fortress this season.
It would help, of course, if the Drogs could put out a team resembling their first XI, for their injury woes worsened considerably leading up to this game just when they appeared to be easing.
Not only that, but several of their players are now walking a tightrope in relation to one-match bans after picking up yellow cards in recent matches.
Chris Lyons' absence in attack - he was ruled out because of a hamstring injury - was certainly keenly felt and right-back James Brown was missing for the first time this season after becoming the third Drogheda player to suffer a broken hand.
To add insult to, er, injury, Eoin McPhillips - making his first start of 2019 - was forced off before half-time and manager Tim Clancy is once again desperately short of bodies at the crunch point of the season.
That lack of resources was surely a factor in Saturday's result as Longford were able to bring on well-known senior players from the bench who all made an impact - most notably Sam Verdon who bagged the winning goal.
His late strike prompted a frantic finale as Drogheda piled men forward and forced four corner kicks during six minutes of injury time - ultimately to no avail.
By comparison, the rest of the match was a rather disappointing affair, one where both teams looked afraid of losing at times.
The first shot on goal arrived after 12 minutes when Stephen Meaney latched onto Michael McDonnell's poor headed clearance and flashed a 25-yard shot narrowly wide.
Similarly, it was a Drogheda mistake that led to Longford's first chance. Luke Gallagher's hesitation led to a chance for Aaron Dobbs whose angled shot was parried by keeper Luca Gratzer and Jack Doherty's follow-up was scrambled clear.
Luke Heeney, playing out of position at right-back, was then caught unawares as Longford's Anto Breslin chested down his keeper Lee Steacy's long clearance at full pelt and bore down on goal before shooting narrowly wide.
Recent signing Dylan Grimes then turned sharply before forcing Gratzer into a save, so it was certainly against the run of play when Drogheda broke the deadlock in the 32nd minute.
Having won a soft-looking free, Sean Brennan floated the ball into the area where Mark Doyle made a nuisance of himself, Longford failed to clear their lines and Meaney's low shot from 15 yards spun under the body of Steacy and into the net.
Drogheda had a great chance to double their lead on 38 minutes when Conor Kane was brought down after a typical lung-busting run down the left flank, resulting in another free.
Brennan's delivery to the near post was perfect and found the unmarked Gallagher who stooped and sent a looping header dropping just over the bar.
It was a miss that came back to haunt Gallagher as Longford went straight up the other end and snatched an equaliser. Drogheda failed to deal with a ball in from the left side and Doherty eventually rolled the ball to debutant Dylan Grimes who had his back to goal.
Grimes shielded the ball from a couple of defenders, who stood too far off him, and with nothing else on the former Shels man attempted a deft back-heel which nestled in the Drogheda net.
With Brennan off target with a stoppage-time free kick, the sides went in level at the break, and with Jordan Adeyemo already pressed into action for the injured McPhillips it looked like the second half would be a rearguard action from the Drogs.
That's the way it looked in the early stages as first Meaney and then Brennan tracked back to make final interceptions near their own penalty area.
However, another great Drogheda chance wasn't taken in the 54th minute as Conor Kane played a great one-two with James Clarke and drove into the box, only to hit a rising shot over the bar.
Then a patient build-up by the visitors ended with a driven Brennan cross which was grabbed by Steacy's finger-tips, with Adeyemo poised to tap in any rebound.
So comfortable were Drogheda that when Longford sub Peter Hopkins struck a wayward 20-yard effort in the 71st minute it was the home side's first shot on or off target since their goal more than half an hour earlier.
That Hopkins effort signalled a mini-rally by the midlanders, though, as he and their other subs made their presence felt, although it was one of their starters - Karl Chambers - who had three goal efforts in quick succession, with two wide and the other saved by Gratzer.
Clarke and Jake Hyland countered with tame long-range efforts, but the momentum was with Longford as the free count turned in their favour.
Ironically there was another Drogheda chance just before the winning goal was scored, as Hyland and Brennan combined before the ball was switched to Ryan O'Shea, who had come off the bench to make his debut. He teed up Adeyemo who couldn't keep his balance and ended up giving away a free.
Longford then struck the decisive blow on 85 minutes as Breslin ran onto a pass from Aobh Dervin and crossed towards Verdon who headed powerfully beyond Gratzer for 2-1.
To their credit, Drogheda threw everything at their hosts in the time that remained. Even before the board went up showing six minutes to be added, Longford had to scramble the ball away for a corner after a brilliant cross into the box from Brennan was almost turned in by the lunging Luke McNally.
Heeney then had a shot deflected wide as Longford's defence came under severe pressure.
Gratzer even came up for all four of the Boynesiders' stoppage-time corners and got his head to one of them, but somehow the home side held out for what could prove a crucial win.