On a night when Sligo Rovers were crowned Airtricity League champions, UCD played host to a Drogheda United team looking to apply pressure on St. Patrick’s Athletic for the runner up spot. It was UCD who took the spoils in an evenly contested battle between two teams seemingly suffering from end of season syndrome.
UCD, playing in their alternate all white strip, started the game brightly and almost opened the scoring from an early corner as Drogheda struggled to defend the UCD set-piece threat. The first major chance fell to the claret and blues of Drogheda, as a well worked cross from the left hand side fell to Brian Gannon, who could only direct his header wide of Ger Barron’s goal.
Drogheda appeared to prefer a slower tempo, with UCD’s industrious midfielder Paul O’Connor driving his team forward with a succession of powerful strikes from distance, being UCD’s most apparent threat to the Drogheda goal. Some neat footwork from O’Connor certainly pleased the crowd as he dinked the ball over two Drogheda players before striking an effort from distance in to the arms of Drogheda ‘keeper Michael Schlingermann.
As the half progressed, Drogheda began to threaten the UCD back four, utilising the space on the wings, as they looked to impose their dominance, as reflected in their league position, and craft an opening. Indeed, Peter Hayes may have felt he was about to break the deadlock on the stroke of half time, only to be denied by a superb late challenge from UCD skipper Michael Leahy.
Both teams had resolute defences, as UCD were restricted to long shots and, despite both teams trying to keep the ball and play football, the half time whistle was a welcome relief to a match which had threatened to descend in to a war of attrition between two solid defensive performances.
The second half began with more urgency as UCD looked to dominate proceedings, and were almost gifted a goal as Gary Burke’s deflected strike had Schlingermann scrambling across his goal to see the ball behind for a UCD corner.
A flurry of dangerous shots continued to pour in on the Drogheda goal, with Paul O’Connor continuing to be at the heart of all of UCD’s attacking play and Gary Burke remaining a constant thorn in the side of the Drogheda defence. Burke then rattled Schlingermann’s right hand post with a fearsome drive from the edge of the box.
David McMillan, who sits 9th in the UCD all time goal scoring charts, looked more and more lively as the students worked away at a tiring Drogheda back four, and he almost claimed a penalty after a clash with Schlingermann and Brian Gannon as he raced down on goal. No penalty was given by the Maltese referee Trustin Farrugia Cann.
The introduction of Dean Clarke on the left hand side inspired UCD’s attacking play, as the home team continued to pressurise the Drogheda defence. It was the visitors, however, who gained an advantage against the run of play as UCD were reduced to ten men in the 73rd minute.
Drogheda’s Declan O’Brien raced clear of the UCD back four and a clumsy challenge saw David O’Connor receive UCD’s first red card of the Airtricity League season. Momentum favoured the visitors who twice had efforts blocked off the line. Michael Leahy led from the back with a fine goal-line clearance, as Paul Crowley looked destined to score.
Despite all the pressure, it was UCD who opened the scoring. Paul O’Connor illustrated great vision to pick out David McMillan who showed neat footwork in the box to draw the foul and win a penalty with just over ten minutes remaining. McMillan stepped up to blast home a right footed strike through the hands of Schlingermann in to the bottom right hand corner.
Drogheda fought back strongly and felt aggrieved in the 85th minute as a Ger Barron mistake saw the ball bundled in to the net, only to be ruled out for a foul on the relieved UCD ‘keeper after a manic goalmouth scramble.
Barron made no such mistake in the final moments, as Drogheda went route one in a valiant attempt to salvage a point from the evening, only to be denied by a string of fine catches from the imperious stopper.
With four minutes of injury time remaining, UCD ran down the clock and claimed a hard fought three points over a strong opposition. In a game with very limited chances, UCD deserved the three points and go in to next week’s penultimate fixture against 4th placed Shamrock Rovers confident of a result at the Tallaght Stadium.
Drogheda, on the other hand, will be disappointed not to have made the numerical advantage count, but Mick Cooke’s team will look to return to winning ways against champions-elect Sligo Rovers, who have lost only one game in this season’s league campaign; also away to UCD.
The fans warmly applauded both sets of players off on a cold night at the UCD Bowl, as both teams begin to look towards next year’s campaign. Both will feel optimistic that they can build on respectable seasons thus far in the Airtricity League and achieve even better next season.
By Thomas Mitchell