Loss puts shot at the play-offs in jeopardy
Drogheda United 0 UCD 3
The Drogheda United management team face a monumental challenge to lift the squad's spirits for next week's crunch game with Longford Town after this disastrous defeat last Friday night.
Struggling for form in the league for a number of weeks, the Boynesiders still had a chance to take a huge step towards confirming their place in the play-offs by beating title favourites UCD.
However, a calamitous 90-second period just before half-time left Drogheda 1-0 adrift and a man down for good measure, and the second 45 minutes made for very difficult viewing as the game drifted towards its inevitable conclusion.
One has to wonder how Tim Clancy's men have imploded after that outstanding start to the season that saw them pick up 17 points from the first eight games and score 28 goals into the bargain.
The answer probably lies in the depth of the squad, which is simply too thin when compared with the other play-off contenders, and it was particularly unfortunate that Clancy was unable to add one or two quality players during the summer transfer window because the club's meagre resources didn't allow it.
As a result, the near ever-presents in the team - Mark Doyle, Ciaran Kelly, Kevin Farragher and Jake Hyland have all started at least 25 out of 29 competitive games so far - have been forced to soldier on without being rested at any stage.
Luke Gallagher (24 starts), Conor Kane (24), Chris Lyons (23) and Sean Brennan (22) probably could do with a breather as well, and Brennan will now get that break next week after his needless sending-off against the Students.
All is not lost, of course, as a victory over Longford would put Drogheda back in pole position to secure a top-four finish at the midlanders' expense, but on current form there is a huge question mark about whether they could make a big impact in the play-off series if they got that far.
Clancy, taking charge of the dugout for the last time before his touchline ban kicks in, named an unchanged line-up from the team that ran Waterford so close in the FAI Cup the week before, but Brennan wasn't 100% after suffering a knock in the warm-up and it was no surprise to see UCD take the game to Drogheda in the early stages.
Conor Davis advanced towards the penalty area and curled a fine effort narrowly wide, and the 13th minute proved lucky for the Boynesiders as Neil Farruglia stole into the six-yard area to fire inches over the bar from Evan Osam's near-post cross.
Drogheda gradually found a bit of rhythm and Brennan teed up skipper Jake Hyland for a long-range effort that dipped just over the bar, before Brennan himself send a 25-yard free kick into the side netting.
The Rathmullen native talked himself into referee Adriano Reale's notebook just before the half-hour as he argued over a free kick award, and that would come back to haunt him.
In the meantime, UCD skipper Gary O'Neill struck a 30-yard free kick into the Drogheda wall and Farrugia had a well-struck shot saved at the second attempt by Paul Skinner.
At the other end, William Hondermarck bustled his way past Liam Scales and sent a shot from distance with his weaker left foot whistling a yard wide.
Then Brennan and Chris Lyons combined to set up Hyland and his snap shot was clutched very well by UCD netminder Conor Kearns.
UCD still looked menacing going forward, though, and Kelly made a couple of excellent blocks to deny Greg Sloggett.
The balance swung decisively towards UCD in the 44th minute when Brennan lunged into a tackle as he tried to win possession just outside the opposition penalty box. There seemed no malice intended, but it was late and referee Reale had no option but to show Drogheda's talisman a second yellow card.
With half-time just two minutes away the Boynesiders just needed to steady the ship to make sure they went into the break still on level terms, but crucially they couldn't do it.
Centre-half Kelly, one of Drogheda's best players this season, didn't get enough on the ball as he tried to clear Jason McClelland's cross from the left and it squirmed invitingly towards Davis who took his time before planting a close-range shot beyond Skinner.
Within seconds of the restart Scales had a header disallowed for offside, but UCD kept pressing and on 55 minutes Davis prodded in their second goal from a rebound after Skinner had saved brilliantly from McClelland.
Over the next seven minutes Clancy emptied his subs bench, bringing off Hondermarck, Lyons and Doyle with the upcoming Longford game in mind, and from there was absolutely no way back for the Boynesiders.
The watching Longford management team of Neale Fenn and Daire Doyle had both stopped taking notes at this stage and happily chatted away to each other in the main stand. Everything about their body language suggested they don't have too many worries about coming back to United Park next week.
McClelland (twice), Farrugia and Sloggett all had chances to extend UCD's lead before Richie Purdy fired wide with a very poor 30-yard effort for the Drogs.
O'Neill's 30-yard free kick for the Students shaved the outside of the post, before the Students rubbed further salt in Drogheda's wounds with a third goal on 82 minutes.
In fairness to substitute striker Jordan Adeyemo, he chased Farrugia all the way to the byeline, but the UCD man had a yard of a head start and he duly cut the ball back towards Davis who completed his hat-trick with a composed finish.
The remaining 10 minutes resembled a training ground exercise as the league leaders passed the ball around with ease and the final whistle couldn't come soon enough at that stage.
Indeed, Davis had the ball in the net for a fourth time, with the linesman's flag again saving Drogheda on that occasion, and Skinner made another fine save to deny McClelland.
So dominant were UCD that you'd wonder whether the Boynesiders could have lived with them even with 11 men on the pitch, but it's in that crunch game with Longford next week where the impact of Brennan's dismissal could be most keenly felt.