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Sligo Rovers fall further behind in battle for top four as Bit O’Red lose to Finn Harps

Finn Harps 3-2 Sligo Rovers


Sligo Rovers players surround referee Rob Hennessy at Finn Park on Friday night. Pic: Donal Hackett.

Sligo Rovers players surround referee Rob Hennessy at Finn Park on Friday night. Pic: Donal Hackett.

Sligo native and Finn Harps assistant manager Gavin Dykes. Pic: Donal Hackett.

Sligo native and Finn Harps assistant manager Gavin Dykes. Pic: Donal Hackett.


Sligo Rovers players surround referee Rob Hennessy at Finn Park on Friday night. Pic: Donal Hackett.


Finn Harps edged out Sligo Rovers 3-2 in an action packed encounter at Finn Park on Friday night, with the Bit O’Red falling further behind in the chase for Europe.

Trailing 2-0 at half-time, Rovers came back to 2-1 before Harps extended their lead again  to 3-1, with the goalscorer Ryan Connolly dismissed minutes later.

Aidan Keena netted his 12th of the season from the penalty spot to give Rovers some hope going into the final minutes, but the points belonged to the hosts.

John Russell’s side came into this game hoping to bounce back after last week’s 1-0 defeat to St Patrick’s Athletic in Inchicore.

That disappointing defeat put a dent in Rovers’ top four hopes, with the Bit O’Red moving four points behind Tim Clancy’s side last week.

Russell made two changes to the side from that game. He was boosted by the return of the league’s leading goalscorer and player of the month Aidan Keena, who returned to the starting 11.

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Karl O’Sullivan also came in to play against his former team, with Niall Morahan and Frank Liivak dropping to the bench.

Harps were bottom of the league coming into Friday’s game at Finn Park, and were absolutely desperate for points as they look to avoid the automatic relegation spot.

Three former Rovers men were among the starters for Ollie Horgan’s side. Ryan Connolly and Regan Donelon were named in the starting 11 alongside Gary Boylan who joined Harps in recent weeks on loan from Galway.

The Donegal side had only won two league games at home this season coming into the tie, and despite this stat, Rovers will have been wary making the journey to Donegal.

The Bit O’Red struggled to a 1-0 win over Horgan’s side earlier in the season at Finn Park, and threw away a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2 last season.

The visitors started brightest undoubtedly, and were left scratching their heads when they somehow didn’t go ahead after two minutes following a bit of pinball in Harps’ goalmouth.

The home fans were getting frustrated as referee Rob Hennessy was quick to punish any challenges from the Harps players.

No-one was more frustrated than the Harps manager Ollie Horgan, who was dismissed on 12 minutes for his protest.

Rovers did have the better of the play in the opening stages, and they were stunned on 18 minutes when the hosts went ahead.

McNamee, from around 25 yards, looked up and fancied his chances from distance. The Donegal man got the right weight and pace behind his shot to curl it past McNicholas.

There was plenty happening, and Rovers should have been back in the game on 34.

Lewis Banks’ through ball to Max Mata looked like it might have caught the Harps defence off guard, but Rob Slevin chased back and took it off the line.

And two minutes later, Harps doubled their lead.

A corner from Boylan was met by Ryan Rainey who just did enough to poke it home for 2-0.

Rovers were under pressure, and an important clearance from Shane Blaney averted the danger following good build-up play between McNamee and Eric McWoods who was proving a handful for the Rovers defence.

Knowing John Russell, he would have demanded a response from his players in the dressing room at half-time, and he certainly got that.

With just shy of two minutes played in the second half. Will Fitzgerald cleared the ball from a Harps attack into the direction of Karl O’Sullivan.

The former Harps winger carried the ball forward before he squared it for Keena, the Mullingar man left unmarked, allowing him to score his 12th league goal of the season with some ease.

But the Donegal men weren’t willing to let this lead slip, and Rovers weren’t doing enough to put pressure on the Harps defence.

It’s the sort of night where the referee will probably dominate most of the post-match discussion, particularly from a Rovers point of view as Harps were awarded a penalty on 68 minutes when Ryan Rainey went down in the box.

Connolly made it 3-1 from the spot, and only minutes later he was given his marching orders for a second yellow after a challenge on Paddy Kirk who was rushing forward.

The drama wasn’t over yet though, with the Bit O'Red pushing to find a late equaliser.

Mata couldn’t keep his diving header on target in the dying stages following O’Sullivan’s cross, before Rovers were awarded a penalty as Frank Liivak was taken down in the box.

It’s the third penalty the Estonian international has won since joining Rovers, but with Keena back in the team, he wasn't given first refusal on this one, having missed his penalty in the home leg of the Europa Conference League game against Viking.

Keena made it 3-2 from the spot, scoring his seventh goal against Harps this season.

Youngster Kailin Barlow gave Rovers an added energy when he came on the field, and had a number of opportunities at goal, but this just wasn’t going to be Rovers day.

And so Harps picked up a valuable three points as they now move two points clear of UCD who occupy bottom.

Rovers are now seven points off fourth place as St Pats were winners against UCD.

There’s no game next weekend for the Bit O’Red, but Russell’s side host Dundalk on Monday August 29th in their rescheduled game.

Finn Harps: James McKeown; Gary Boylan, Rob Slevin; Ethan Boyle, Regan Donelon; Elie-Gael N'Zeyi, Ryan Connolly; Ryan Rainey, Filip Mihaljević (Dylan Duncan, half-time), Barry McNamee (Liam McGing 84); Eric McWoods (Mark Timlin 90+5).

Sligo Rovers: Luke McNicholas; Lewis Banks (Kailin Barlew 84), Nando Pijnaker, Shane Blaney, Paddy Kirk; Niall Morahan, Adam McDonnell (David Cawley 82), Robbie Burton; Karl O’Sullivan, Will Fitzgerald (Frank Liivak 72); Max Mata. Aidan Keena.

Referee: Rob Hennessy.