A narrow miss on a night of drama was the difference between Finn Harps staying in the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division or having to endure the play-offs and Longford Town on Saturday.
Twenty seconds from the end of the five minutes of signaled injury time with Harps an Adam Foley goal to the good, goalkeeper Mark Anthony McGinley fluffed a catch into the breadbasket and Kurtis Byrne, the Waterford FC substitute, looked certain for an equalizer only for his effort to somehow hit the post.
Time stood still for a second.
What felt like hours beforehand, Foley tucked home from close range on 27 minutes to give the Ollie Horgan's team the lead and it would prove the only goal of the game.
Austrian striker Alexander Kogler found Barry McNamee down the inside right channel and his square pass was met by Foley sliding in on the six-yard box, with the final touch of the goalward effort coming from defender Niall O’Keeffe. Foley’s effort would’ve gone in anyways.
The Donegal side knew their hopes of avoiding ninth place and the lottery it brings was dependent on more than a home win. Only then could any hopes of a favour from either Tolka Park or Turner's Cross would even come into the equation, where Shelbourne and Derry City were scrambling for safety.
The visitors made the long trek to the north-west with a third placed finish still within their grasp and possible European qualification. They’d end it in fifth, although Byrne’s miss wouldn’t have overtaken Sligo Rovers in fourth as it turned out.
The visiting team produced the best chance of the opening quarter when Matty Smith broke free from a clutter in midfield only to see Harps goalkeeper McGinley win the duel having stayed on his feet as long as he possible.
Brian Murphy was kept busy. Foley hit one low in the 11th minute to draw a save from the Waterford goalkeeper, as did Kosovar Sadiki up high. After the Foley goal, Kogler headed just over from a Ryan Connolly corner as Harps sought to press home their advantage.
John Martin, on 37 minutes, showed neat close control. Firstly, to get away from McNamee and slipping a defensive line so straight you could’ve put a resting spirit level on it.
Martin got in on McGinley only to shoot wide inches of the post, so close a cheer went up from those on Fran Rockett’s bench, thinking it was in.
Jack Byrne’s goal for Shamrock Rovers at Shelbourne meant at half-time, Harps were safe as it stood, with Waterford knowing if they could turn it around and Sligo held onto the lead in Dundalk that third-place finish was obtainable.
With the league champions the only team to overcome Harps in their previous seven fixtures, there was form there for the locals.
McNamee, four minutes into the second half showed that confidence to work an angle and draw a fine save from Murphy at full stretch.
Not to be outdone, moments later, Waterford caused a nervous moment for the home team when O’Keeffe was just wide with a shot.
Smith got a shot off in the Harps area to draw another McGinley save before going down in the vicinity of Mark Russell amid penalty appeals.
Midway through the second half, Harps came within inches of a second. Stephen Folan’s deep cross was met by a looping header by Webster and the ball rebounded down off the crossbar where Martin blocked from Foley in front of goal.
At the back of everyone’s mind, they might have had a feeling that was it. It wasn’t, with the late drama still to unfold. The Waterford chance that came and went was to prove the last act of what was, even by our own domestic standards, quite an extraordinary season. Harps - thanks to Foley and the post - have lived to tell the tale.
Finn Harps: Mark Anthony McGinley; Shane McEleney (Mark Coyle 73), Kosovar Sadiki, Stephen Folan; Dave Webster, Ryan Connolly, Gareth Harkin, Barry McNamee, Mark Russell; Adam Foley (Sam Todd 80), Alexander Kogler (Raff Cretaro 56).
Waterford FC: Brian Murphy; Darragh Power (Shane Griffin 60), Jake Davidson, Robbie Weir, Tyreke Wilson (Will Longbottom 90); Robbie McCourt, Niall O’Keefe (Will Fitzgerald 67), Ali Coote (Kurtis Byrne 90); John Martin (Dean Walsh 90), Daryl Murphy, Matty Smith.
Referee: Paul McLaughlin
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