Shels' fairytale turns sour
Kelly shoot-out hero for Sligo again as Dubliners cry foul over controversial red card
(Sligo Rovers win 4-1 on penalties)
SLIGO win a cup, Ciaran Kelly saves a couple of penalties, and the performance of the referee dominates the post-mortem. Familiar themes on an extraordinary afternoon.
It ended with the majority of the 21,622 crowd going home happy as the Sligo masses celebrated back-to-back FAI Cup wins after last year's hero, Kelly, was brought off the bench in the 119th minute to again work his magic.
Yet, the fairytale aspect of Paul Cook's audacious decision was almost a subplot in the aftermath, with discussion centred around the 36th-minute dismissal of Shelbourne's Barry Clancy following what the referee deemed a second yellow-card offence.
Shels were leading when the winger tumbled in the box under pressure from John Russell.
Was it a penalty? A tough one, but Richie Winter was probably right not to award a spot-kick. However, it was a close call, and the referee got it terribly wrong by ruling that Clancy had dived. A game-changing punishment was the consequence.
The 26-year-old was visibly distraught and tried to articulate his disappointment afterwards. "I cannot understand the decision," said Clancy. "I got contact, I went down and I thought he blew for a peno. The second card was outrageous."
And the Dubliners' grievances didn't end there. They were stunned by the pre-match decision -- driven by RTE -- which decreed that the penalty shoot-out would take place at the Sligo end of the ground -- just like in 2010.
Then came the final insult: Kelly was clearly off his goal-line as he made the decisive stops from Kevin Dawson and Colm James that allowed Raffaele Cretaro to stroke home the winning kick.
Shels 'keeper Dean Delany claimed that Winter had been made aware of Kelly's actions.
"I went over to one of the assistants after the second penalty and he told me that he was speaking into the monitor to the referee, telling him that he (Kelly) was coming off his line," he said.
Winter (right) refused to comment.
Shels boss Alan Mathews was reluctant to speak too much about the match official, but struggled to hide his true feelings under persistent questioning.
"The referee shouldn't be centre stage," said Mathews. "It was probably a good game, with a good atmosphere and good buzz, but who takes over? The referee. I don't want to give him that, but unfortunately it cost us today. And I do believe it cost us."
It was hard to disagree.
Sligo manager Paul Cook, who ducked out of the stadium instead of watching the penalty shoot-out, acknowledged that his team were below par.
Mathews constructed a game-plan that worked, balancing the need for containment with the ability to bring some of his better players into the action.
Admittedly, the task was that bit easier with Joseph Ndo failing to recover from a hamstring problem. Nevertheless, Sligo still had the more intimidating team-sheet.
For half an hour, they fired blanks though. They had possession without penetration. When Richie Ryan did break out with a superb through ball to release Eoin Doyle, the Sligo frontman dithered and was thwarted by an excellently timed Andy Boyle challenge.
Overall, it was the First Division side who looked the more incisive, and they grabbed the initiative in a frantic two-minute spell. First, Clancy struck the crossbar with a powerful header from a Brendan McGill cross.
The Dubliners responded by probing again, and this time they got their reward, with Philip Hughes nipping away from Gavin Peers to flick a John Sullivan centre past Brendan Clarke.
It was a special moment for the self- confessed journeyman, and his neat build-up play led to the game's flashpoint incident. He turned Peers and fed playmaker David Cassidy, who sent the onrushing Clancy into space. Russell, who had been fouled by Clancy for the first yellow, raced back to cover. Winter took over from there.
The Wicklow official ruined a recent league game between Shamrock Rovers and Bray by awarding two dubious first-half yellows to the latter's Shane O'Connor.
Unfortunately, in a year where refereeing standards have declined, this was another poor call. It was a turning point. Sligo, with their overlapping full-backs and ability to spread the game, are the last team in the country you'd want to be a man down against.
They levelled two minutes into the second half, when Danny Ventre teed up roving left-back Iarfhlaith Davoren, who scored with a daisycutter that fizzed under the body of Delany. The Shels netminder will want to avoid replays of that goal, yet he redeemed himself with a fine save from Matt Blinkhorn just as the Sligo sub appeared certain to score with his first touch.
To their credit, Shels regrouped, held their shape, and sat tight for an hour of power. Centre-halves Boyle and Stephen Paisley were immense, with the latter deservedly collecting Man of the Match honours. Sligo huffed and puffed but, while they owned the ball for extra-time, clear-cut openings were at a premium.
Both benches made changes with a view to penalties, and Cook readied Kelly in a plan that was hatched earlier in the week.
Karl Bermingham converted for Shels, but Dawson and James were unable to find a way past Kelly as Doyle, Ryan, Alan Keane and finally Cretaro emphatically converted to give Sligo the glory.
"Ciaran is phenomenal at them (penalties)," said Cook, who expects his employers to use some of the prize money to tie down key members of his squad for 2012. "He just seems to have a great way of reading people's body language."
You didn't need to be an expert in that field to know who and what the Shels players were thinking about as they boarded the team bus, away from the din of Sligo celebrations.
Shelbourne -- Delany; Ryan, Boyle, Paisley, Byrne; McGill (Bermingham 119), Sullivan (C Byrne 59), Dawson, Clancy; Cassidy (James 117); Hughes.
Sligo Rovers -- Clarke (Kelly 119); Keane, Peers, McGuinness, Davoren; Dillon (Blinkhorn 60), Ryan, Ventre, Greene; Russell (Cretaro 77); Doyle.
Ref -- Richie Winter (Wicklow)