A goal in each half from Declan O’Brien and Ryan Brennan kept Drogheda on course for next season’s Europa League despite a late Shelbourne rally, as the Louth team came out 2-1 on top.
O’Brien struck from the penalty spot on 20 minutes after being pulled back by Glen Cronin and the Boynesiders wasted a host of chances to increase their lead.
But it was a different story in the second half, especially when both sides were reduced to 10 men following a tussle involving Drogheda’s Gavin Brennan and Shels defender Gareth Matthews.
From a rare attack Ryan Brennan seemed to have sealed victory for Drogheda with a deflected strike on 85 minutes, but sub Philip Hughes replied for Shels on 88 to ensure a tense finish.
Shels boss Alan Mathews had left a number of frontline players on the bench with Sunday’s FAI Cup semi-final in mind, while top scorer O’Brien returned to the Drogs’ starting line-up from suspension.
In a low-key first 15 minutes Drogheda’s Ryan Brennan had one header wide and then had a shot that was almost deflected in by O’Brien.
But Drogs keeper Gabriel Sava then fumbled a Conan Byrne effort and Philip Gorman latched onto the rebound before shooting narrowly wide.
It was a narrow escape for the Boynesiders, but they made the most of that let-off and grabbed the lead goal from their next attack on 20 minutes. O’Brien was pulled back by Glen Cronin as he tried to latch onto Peter Hynes’ head flick, and ‘Fabio’ picked himself up to drive the resulting penalty down the middle.
Shels almost responded instantly when Paul Byrne crossed for the on-rushing Gorman who fired over the top from 18 yards, but Drogheda bossed the remainder of the half and missed a series of chances to extend their lead.
There was a bit more vigour about Shels on the restart and Gorman tested Sava with a firm header on 48 minutes before the keeper pushed a Conan Byrne piledriver round the post.
Tempers boiled over just before the hour when Shels’ Gareth Matthews and Gavin Brennan of Drogheda both received straight red cards following an altercation near the corner flag, and Shels continued to dominate without seriously testing Sava.
The Drogs should have put the result beyond doubt on 78 minutes when Paul Crowley was put clean through by Eric Foley, but the skipper’s attempted chip landed in the grateful arms of Shels keeper Chris Bennion.
Ryan Brennan seemed to have sealed the points five minutes from time with a shot that seemed to be deflected past Bennion by Lorcan Fitzgerald.
But on 89 minutes substitute Philip Hughes replied for Shels and Drogheda then survived six minutes of added time.
DROGHEDA UNITED: Gabriel Sava; Brian Gannon, Alan Byrne, Derek Prendergast, Philip Hand; Ryan Brennan, Paul Crowley, Eric Foley; Declan O’Brien, Peter Hynes (Cathal Brady 67, Jason Marks 82), Gavin Brennan.
SHELBOURNE: Chris Bennion; Gareth Matthews, Brian Shortall (Ian Ryan 67), Stephen Paisley, Lorcan Fitzgerald; Conan Byrne, Stephen Hurley, Glen Cronin (Kevin Dawson 84), Barry Clancy (Philip Hughes 71); Paul Byrne, Philip Gorman.
Referee: Neil Doyle (Dublin).