Shel-shock as Drogs denied at the death
Shelbourne 2, Drogheda Utd 1
Drogheda United boss Tim Clancy has said before that he's not interested in moral victories and Friday night's top-of-the-table clash with Shelbourne was another game that fell into that category.
You could sense the air of despondency among the squad as they quietly departed Tolka Park - most to go on their summer holidays - and Clancy shared that feeling as he reflected on an entertaining 90 minutes.
However, he was also full of pride as his water-thin squad put it up to the title favourites and beat them in pretty much every facet of the game except the one that really mattered.
Here was a Drogheda team who passed the ball on the deck with accuracy and aplomb and created considerably more chances than their hosts, and even most Shelbourne fans would surely agree that the better team lost.
It should really have been the Boynesiders taking home a victory, a result which would have put them top of the table, but even the worthy consolation prize of a point was snatched away from them by a goal scored by a former Drogheda United captain in Derek Prendergast.
The visitors had Stephen Meaney back in the starting line-up following a number of weeks out, and he did well to last the 90 minutes, while Jake Hyland also returned following a family bereavement, with Cian Kavanagh dropping to the bench and Mark Hughes being left out of the squad completely due to injury.
Intermittent heavy rain made conditions extremely slippery, but the surface remained remarkably smooth and the Drogs soon showed they could play football on it as a lovely exchange between James Clarke and Conor Kane ended with Leaving Cert student Clarke seeing his shot deflected behind for a corner.
Shels responded with a shot from distance as Karl Moore teed up Shane Farrell and his effort took a slight deflection off Luke Gallagher before being well gathered by keeper Luca Gratzer, who was preferred in the starting line-up to the fit-again Paul Skinner.
Still, no one saw a Shelbourne goal coming as early as the 16th minute. It stemmed from a lung-busting run from right to left by their right-back Aidan Friel, pulling the defence out of shape in the process, and his cross was met by the head of Ciaran Kilduff who planted the ball beyond Gratzer from eight yards.
Almost immediately Drogheda had a chance to equalise, but Gallagher's shot struck teammate Chris Lyons and in the scramble that followed Friel sliced the ball behind the Shels goal for a corner.
Luke Heeney was having quite a battle with his Shelbourne counterpart Ryan Brennan and the latter received treatment three times for leg and head injuries in that first half.
In the meantime Drogheda continued to play some great football and when Clarke harried James English out of possession and spread play wide to Kane, the left-back squared straight into the path of the returning Stephen Meaney whose goal-bound shot was brilliantly clawed around the post by Shels keeper Colin McCabe.
Heeney tried his luck from 30 yards that didn't worry McCabe too much, but it was an infinitely better attempt than Kilduff managed when his ambitious volley flew wide of the stand behind the Drogheda goal!
There were a few more half-chances for the visitors, when the final ball didn't quite pick out its target, but in first-half stoppage time Clancy's men hauled themselves back level in spectacular style.
They won a rather soft free 30 yards out when Oscar Brennan bundled over Lyons, and although Sean Brennan smacked his kick straight at younger sibling Ryan in the Shels wall, big brother was onto the rebound in a flash and walloped it with equal ferocity - left-footed this time - past McCabe for 1-1.
On the restart Shelbourne won their first corner of the game and a subsequent deep cross from Lorcan Fitzgerald was completely missed in the air by Gratzer before being cleared.
However, Drogheda soon regained control and even against a renowned Shelbourne defence they continued to create scoring opportunities.
Clarke got away from his marker and crossed to the near post towards Meaney, who just failed to get a touch, and moments later Clarke popped up on the opposite side of the box to hook a shot narrowly wide.
Before the third quarter had been completed, Shels had made two changes in an effort to turn the tide, and in fairness both Conan Byrne and Daniel McKenna made something of a difference to the home team. Yet still it was Drogheda who continued to pose more of a threat. Lyons latched onto a Kane throw-in and cut inside before firing over the bar, and then McCabe had to react smartly to scramble away another fierce Brennan free kick that seemed to go under the defensive wall.
Cries from anxious Shels fans to 'pick it up' served to indicate how the game was going, and it was surely more in hope than expectation that they screamed for a penalty in the 70th minute.
For once the advancing Friel got in behind Kane and his cross was blocked by Gallagher's body as he lost his footing and the ball nudged off his arm after he slid to the ground.
Nevertheless, it was a more even contest now and the two Shels Brennans - Oscar and Ryan - combined to put Conan Byrne away and he cut inside Kane before having a left-footed shot deflected behind.
Then Fitzgerald switched play right towards Conan Byrne and his header teed up McKenna whose hook shot was easily gathered by Gratzer.
On 76 minutes a brilliant pass by Sean Brennan released the onrushing Jake Hyland and he advanced into the box, only to shoot well over the bar as Lyons made a darting run looking to get on the end of a cross from the captain.
Brennan was still full of running at this stage and brilliant anticipation saw him latch onto a miscued defensive header from a Shelbourne player. He bore down on goal and turned onto his right foot before aiming for the bottom corner, only to be denied by a fine save from McCabe.
Drogheda's best chance of grabbing a winner was probably the one that came in the 81st minute. James Brown intercepted a slack pass by McKenna and took off down the right flank before sending the play left towards Kane.
Like Brennan, he cut inside for a more favourable angle, only to fire a yard wide - agony for the in-form left-back who remarkably is still waiting for the first goal in his Drogheda career.
That sense of a missed opportunity was multiplied when Shels grabbed a scarcely deserved second goal just two minutes later. A foul by Lyons presented Shels with a free kick in the centre circle and Drogheda's defence momentarily went to sleep as Fitzgerald's long delivery was headed goal-wards by the unmarked Luke Byrne and Prendergast stole in front of his marker to nod past Gratzer from eight yards.
There was a late chance of an equaliser for Hyland, but he shot well over the bar from outside the box and despite four minutes of stoppage time Drogheda were unable to fashion one more opportunity.