Saturday 24 February 2018

Irish legion go head to head in battle for final Premier League place

Ireland and Brighton teammates Keith Andrews, left, and Stephen Ward
Ireland and Brighton teammates Keith Andrews, left, and Stephen Ward
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Loan pair Stephen Ward and Keith Andrews are gearing up for the promotion play-offs with Brighton after they dramatically grabbed the final place with an injury-time winner at Nottingham Forest.

Reading entered the last game of the regular season in control of sixth spot but, with Ireland manager Martin O'Neill in attendance, Alex Pearce's side could only draw 2-2 with Burnley in a game where they squandered a host of chances.

They were duly punished by Brighton, who fell behind but mounted a second-half comeback, with Ward, who is still a Wolves player, notching an equaliser, before Leonardo Ulloa headed in the winner to prompt wild celebrations.

Brighton will take on a Derby squad that includes Jeff Hendrick, Richard Keogh and Conor Sammon in the play-offs, while there will also be an Irish flavour to the other semi, with Richard Dunne and Kevin Doyle hoping to be involved for QPR against Rob Kiernan and James McClean's Wigan. The latter was on target as he was restored to Uwe Rosler's side for their lively 4-3 reverse at the hands of Blackburn.

Meanwhile, there was a mixture of relief and heartbreak at the other end of the table as Birmingham escaped relegation with a remarkable comeback from two goals down to snatch a crucial point at Bolton to stay up on goal difference.

Irish 'keeper Darren Randolph was in danger of being the villain of the piece when he was at fault for Bolton's second, but high-earning Nikola Zigic pulled one back and then set up Paul Caddis for a thrilling conclusion. Irish U-21 international Callum Reilly also started for a Birmingham side managed by the pumped-up Lee Clark, who provided the image of the weekend by sprinting down the touchline at full-time and jumping into the away support.

Their gain was Doncaster Rovers' pain as the concession of a late penalty at champions Leicester saw them fall through the trap door.

Ex-Bohemians and Drogheda midfielder Paul Keegan is a regular for Paul Dickov's charges and faces a drop back to the third tier after coming up with Rovers last season, while Aston Villa loanee Enda Stevens was a late sub and has an uncertain future.

PUNCHES

In League One, Graham Kavanagh's Carlisle were relegated after a 3-0 loss at Wolves killed their hopes of a great escape. Kavanagh has been given assurances that he will remain in charge for their tilt at League Two and pulled no punches about his belief that his squad lacked the fight to survive.

"It (relegation) was inevitable over the last two weeks, although I didn't want to publicly say it," said Kavanagh.

"The manner in which we lost was symptomatic of some of the really poor performances we've had. It shows the character of this group of players.

"I need a squad that's honest and hard-working, I need a squad that doesn't make excuses. I need a squad that doesn't look for ways out. I need a squad with quality, so I'll do all what I can this summer to implement what I need and make those changes."

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