ON A NIGHT that spanned the generations at the old rustic Finn Park, it was the youngest man on the field who got his hands on the script and ripped it to bits.
Finn Harps 2-0 Limerick FC (after extra-time – Harps won 2-1 on aggregate)
BJ Banda replaced Kevin McHugh in the 103rd minute after the club captain had run himself into the ground on a night of attrition for brave men. Those promotion-relegation play-offs were never meant to be simple.
Banda hadn’t even appeared for the Harps first team two months ago but in a contest that had become compressed in the middle third, he would provide his team with a cutting edge.
Three minutes from time, Damien McNulty ignored Tony McNamee on the right and opted to go the long way around and his whipped cross – so close to those on the Town End they might’ve heard it whizz – was glanced in at the near post by Banda.
Finn Park erupted.
Just over five minutes later, the vast chunk of the 4,000 or so who had paid the turnstiles were on the pitch in celebration. Harps were back in the top flight for the first time since 2008. For some it might’ve felt even longer – before the match the stadium announcer welcomed Limerick for a “First Division” fixture.
Silence sat on the corner that intersects the River End and the Main Stand, where 400 Limerick fans saw their side fall inches short on an epic conclusion to the season.
Having not won one game in their first 21 outings, they ran to the wire.
When the celebrations at Finn Park died down – and merely moved elsewhere – it seemed like an awful long time beforehand that Michael Funston had shot the hosts in front and levelled the tie.
Remember, Shaun Kelly’s thunderbolt at Markets Field three nights’ beforehand have given Martin Russell’s Limerick the slenderest of leads as they made their way northwards.
It was a peculiar fixture in some ways. Despite Limerick having an abundance of the ball and plenty of opportunities – not to mention hitting the woodwork in either half – it was Harps who arguably created the two best chances of the match.
Nathan Boyle and Banda weren’t able to fashion an equaliser, although Ollie Horgan, the Finn Harps manager, would’ve been content enough with the single goal defeat.
But that defensive sloppiness was still there from Limerick.
Funston’s goal on 38 minutes lifted an already electric atmosphere on Navenny Street.
Funston and his stablemate in the Harps midfield Raymond Foy chased down Patrick Kanyuka, who, under pressure tried to pass back to goalkeeper Hall.
However, Funston scampered to try and pick up the loose change.
He managed to hook back towards to Limerick goal and although the ball was bundled clear, the senior referee’s assistant Damien McGrath awarded the goal.
It was a goal that had been coming. On 17 minutes, a combination of Freddy Hall in the Limerick goal and Shane Tracy managed to avert a McNulty header and then, four minutes later, Hall had to save at full stretch from Foy.
Limerick’s Robbie Williams had a free header in the Harps box and somehow, it didn’t go in.
Kanyuka might’ve walked when he bumped Gareth Harkin on the run in the second half but only a yellow was given and a free-kick right on the edge of the penalty area.
Harps’ closest to going in front in the tie – after the break – was when Foy flashed wide and Sean Russell, at the other end, blazed over four minutes from time was free on the edge of the area and 18 yards out after a pullback was deflected his way.
By the time extra-time came the legs were getting heavier and heavier. The nearest that Harps came was a couple of long-range efforts from Matthew Crossan. And it appeared that both sets of players would be chalking their cues for penalties.
All the talk was of the shoot-out until Banda popped up with his late, late winner. The beeps in Ballybofey will be heard long into the night.
Finn Harps: Ciaran Gallagher; Damien McNulty, Packie Mailey, Keith Cowan; Josh Mailey, Raymond Foy, Gareth Harkin (Kieran McDaid 101), Tony McNamee, Ciaran Coll; Michael Funston (Matthew Crossan 96); Kevin McHugh (BJ Banda 103).
Limerick FC: Freddy Hall; Shaun Kelly, Patrick Kanyuka (Sean Russell 57), Robbie Williams, Shane Tracy; Shane Duggan; Dean Clarke (Ross Mann 110), Paul O’Conor, Lee-J Lynch, Ian Turner; Vinny Faherty.
Referee: Derek Tomney (Dublin)Tags: