Play-offs in Drogheda's sights after narrow win
Drogheda United 2 Longford Town 1
Luck was on Drogheda United's side for once as they picked up a narrow but deserved win to give their promotion play-off ambitions a massive boost on Friday night last.
Gareth McCaffrey looked suspiciously offside when scoring what proved to be the decisive goal, while the Boynesiders also survived a massive scare deep into stoppage time when Longford goalkeeper Mick Kelly came up for a corner kick and almost snatched a valuable equaliser.
But they say that you make your own luck and Tim Clancy's men were good value for their win after they outfought the midlanders and produced an improved performance that suggests they are capable of making an impact in the play-offs - should they get there.
One point down in Cobh next weekend still might not be enough, but at least Drogheda's fate is in their own hands - whereas Longford would have just required a point from their last game to sneak the last play-off spot had Kelly's header sneaked inside Paul Skinner's right-hand post.
The midlanders will also look back with regret at the clubs' previous meeting in Drogheda, where another Kelly - Ciaran - snatched what looks like being a priceless 95th-minute equaliser for the Boynesiders.
Both teams were under-strength for this pivotal fixture. Sean Brennan and Kevin Farragher were absent from United's line-up, while Sam Verdon, Dean Byrne and ex Drogs Darren Meenan, Shane Elworthy and Jamie Hollywood didn't feature for the away side.
Longford's run of five straight league victories still seemed of more significance than their 7-0 humbling by Cork City in the FAI Cup the week before, especially given Drogheda' patchy league form, but the hosts should have scored inside six minutes.
Richie Purdy caught the midlanders napping with a quick free kick towards Chris Lyons and his driven cross was flicked well wide by Luke Gallagher from close range.
There seemed to be a good shout for a penalty when McCaffrey's cross caused confusion in the away defence and Mark Doyle appeared to have his legs clipped by keeper Kelly as he touched the ball past him, but surprisingly the appeals weren't too convincing and referee Damien MacGraith remained unmoved.
An early booking for Longford's Dean Dillon was further evidence that Drogheda were in the driving seat, so it was completely against the run of play when the midlanders grabbed a priceless goal from their first attack in the 13th minute.
There didn't seem to be too much on when Dillon took possession some 40 yards from goal, but he dribbled menacingly towards the penalty area virtually unchallenged before curling a superb shot beyond Skinner and into the right corner of the net.
Drogheda missed a great chance to level immediately as Purdy swung a free kick deep to the far post, from where the unmarked Doyle glanced a header well wide.
However, Longford looked threatening going forward and Jamie Doyle had a free kick saved by Skinner at the second attempt, before Ciaran Kelly did well to block a Dylan McGlade effort after the winger had dropped the shoulder to create the opening.
You began to fear it wouldn't be Drogheda's night when William Hondermarck hooked a superb pass over the top for the onrushing Doyle who bore down on goal but then fired wide with only Kelly to beat.
Indeed there was more frustration when Jake Hyland seemed to be tripped just inside the Longford box as he was about to pull the trigger, only for referee MacGraith to whistle for a previous infringement and award the Drogs a free kick 25 yards out.
Had he deemed the tackle on Hyland as a foul then it was a possible last-man, red-card offence, but Drogheda's irritation was soon forgotten as McCaffrey curled a superb free kick round the defensive wall and into the bottom corner of Kelly's net.
The scorer blazed over the bar moments later as the Boynesiders almost plundered a second goal, but in the lead-up to half-time they were fortunate not to fall behind once more.
Initially they defended well, with Gallagher and Ciaran Kelly blocking efforts from Doyle and Karl Chambers, but Skinner then made a very rash decision to race from his goal, allowing McGlade to win a foot race and chip wide of the empty goal.
The keeper then spilled a McGlade cross, but the lurking Doyle collided with the post and injured himself and was unable to prod the loose ball over the line.
However, Skinner redeemed himself with a crucial save early in the second half after Peter Hopkins raced clear of Conor Kane on Longford's right. The number 7 looked certain to score as he bore down on goal, but Skinner positioned himself well and blocked the winger's shot superbly with his leg.
Lyons swapped passes with Doyle and curled a shot into Kelly's hands, Hyalnd fired over the bar from distance and Gallagher sliced wide when presented with a half-chance, but a Drogheda goal wasn't looking likely at this stage.
That view was reaffirmed when McCaffrey was caught in two minds - whether to go for a shot or dribble round the keeper after a good move involving Kane, Hyland and Doyle - and Kelly eventually grabbed the ball at the former Shamrock Rovers player's feet.
McCaffrey's next contribution was something special, though. Lyons showed typical battling qualities to win possession midfield and released his on-rushing teammate who seemed to be several yards offside at first glance.
However, there was no flag and McCaffrey advanced on goal before sending a delightful chip over keeper Kelly for 2-1.
Chances were thin on the ground for both teams after that, with Chambers firing into the side netting at one end and Lyons sending a shot flashing just wide for the Drogs on 82 minutes.
Right at the death, though, Mick McDonnell won Longford's only corner of the game and up went 6ft 5in keeper Kelly. The kick from the right was aimed towards Kelly eight yards from goal and the keeper was unmarked as he glanced a header just wide of the post.
It was a heart-stopping moment for Drogheda fans and players alike, but the final whistle sounded seconds later and the Boynesiders had secured a priceless three points by the skin of their teeth.