GOALKEEPER Conor O’Malley was the hero as St Patrick’s Athletic kept their nerve in a penalty shootout to break the hearts of their hosts Galway United and lift the EA Sports Cup.
He made two saves to claim the spoils in surreal fashion as confused players and officials looked unsure of themselves after the youngster pushed away an unconvincing attempt from Andy O’Connell to secure a 4-3 triumph on penalties.
O’Malley had earlier saved from Jake Keegan but when Sean Hoare missed the kick to give Saints’ victory with their fifth kick following four flawless conversions, it meant O’Connell had to score to send proceedings to sudden death.
When he failed to do so, the Saints celebrations were delayed by the mistaken impression that they had another penalty to take and Greg Bolger appeared to be preparing to walk forward and do so before the penny dropped. It added to the mood of anti-climax that was felt by the locals in the wake of an agonising defeat.
However, on the balance of play, this was a fair outcome as it was Liam Buckley’s side that were on top for the majority of the scoreless 120 minutes.
Buckley has now won all of the major domestic honours during his second stint with the Inchicore club, with efficiency from 12 yards the secret of their success - they scaled the quarter final (Cork) and semi final (Shamrock Rovers) hurdles in the same manner.
The late drama was a contrast from a first half that was low on entertainment for the biggest Eamonn Deacy Park attendance of the season.
Galway appeared to be struggling with the occasion in the early minutes, with Tommy Dunne’s troops struggling to keep the ball for a sustained period of time. Pat’s were comfortable in comparison, yet they lacked a real cutting edge. It made for grim viewing.
Speculative shots from Bolger and Lee Desmond were the sum total of the Saints efforts although one run from central striker Morgan Langley was blocked bravely by Kilian Cantwell.
Galway’s defence required more from the talented players in front of them. Ryan Connolly, who is so often the heartbeat of this side, was guilty of uncharacteristic errors in midfield which prevented the Tribesmen from building up any kind of momentum. In-form American attacker Keegan was left to chase shadows.
The interval brought about an improvement with the Dubliners lifting the tempo from the resumption and applying real pressure with Conan Byrne crashing a right footer into the woodwork. Galway replied with a few strikes of their own with skipper Paul Sinnott’s piledriver deflected behind for a corner which culminated with Jason Molloy narrowly missing the target from distance.
Finally, the spectators had a game on their hands.
Enda Curran brought them off their feet with a swirling free that produced a diving save from stand-in Saints stopper O’Malley, a native of Mayo.
Buckley duly sent for last term’s top scorer Christy Fagan, who has spent most of 2015 on the treatment table, and his natural instinct gave the Galway rearguard a bit more work to do. That said, his rustiness was apparent when he swiped at a loose ball in a goalmouth scramble that ended with Sean Hoare finding the side netting.
Extra-time was starting to look like an attractive scenario for Dunne’s charges at this juncture with giant stopper Conor Winn winning the approval of both benches with a terrific stop from a 25-yard James Chambers rocket. That was as close as the Saints came to winning the game in normal play, with Winn finding it easier to deal with an Aaron Greene drive and a Killian Brennan free at the death that was preceded by an ominous silence as the set piece specialist eyed up the situation.
That was Brennan’s final contribution with Jamie McGrath sprung for the extra half an hour. Galway were living on the edge defensively with Sam Oji carrying a knock and finding Fagan a handful; the big defender was eventually withdrawn.
But the relegation battlers gradually started to make some inroads in the opposition half and threatened to score against the run of play with O’Malley called into action to deny Marc Ludden as a series of free kicks yielded an opening.
And, after the teams changed ends and strained their bodies for one last effort, the unmarked Curran wasted a golden opportunity by dithering for long enough in the area to allow O’Malley block his path to goal following exceptional build-up up play from Colm Horgan.
The pain of that miss was intensified by what ensued afterwards.
Galway United: Winn, Horgan, Oji (O’Connell 103), Cantwell, Ludden; Sinnott, Connolly; Shanahan, Curran (Melody 111), Molloy (Walsh 73); Keegan
St Patrick’s Athletic: O’Malley, O’Brien, Hoare, Browne, Desmond; Chambers, Bolger, Brennan (McGrath 90); Byrne, Langley (Fagan 66), Greene (Morris 112)
Referee: P McLaughlin (Monaghan)