MILFORD UNITED enjoyed one of the most fruitful afternoons in their history in a compelling penalty shoot-out victory over a decorated Athenry at Moyle View Park on Sunday.
MILFORD UNITED 0
Milford won 7-6 on penalties
A book shouldn’t be judged by its cover of course and a glance at a scoreless 110 minutes doesn’t do justice to an afternoon of nervous energy. Three players saw red over the course of the game, two from the visiting Galwegians, while chances came and went at both ends and with the sands of time lessening in extra-time the hosts lost their goalkeeper Caolan McGettigan to concussion.
Player-manager Peter Doherty told his warming-up replacement Ian Strain to make a hero of himself and the substitute duly obliged to make the save from the unlucky 13th penalty taker in an otherwise flawless series of penalties before Paddy Peoples rolled home the winning spot kick as dusk was about to fall.
It brought unconfined joy to the townspeople, many of whom spilled onto the pitch to share in the celebrations with their team, who before a ball was kicked on Sunday were quoted as the 40/1 outsiders for the competition. The win means Milford have made the last 16 for only the second time in their history and welcome last season’s FAI Junior Cup winners, Pike Rovers from Limerick, to town on February 12.
The remnants of the Athenry team, a side who have won four of the last five Connacht Cups as well as three Western Hygiene Supplies Galway and District Premier Division in the same timeframe, trudged from the field.
After such a titanic battle to the death and indeed sudden death, it was tough not to feel an element of sympathy for the nine men, who competed so well with Milford’s 10 from the hour-mark. A minute before half-time, referee Vincent McLoughlin laid down his marker.
When Cathal Fahy went down flimsily in the penalty area there was nothing doing but as the Athenry striker picked himself up he and Paul Shields had words and the Milford full-back was forcefully pushed to the floor. McLoughlin brandished a straight red card and after an enterprising opening, Milford started to believe.
Athenry’s cv shows their triumphs of late and whatever references Doherty got his hands on declared them to be a team that preferred to play the ball on the ground. Milford countered this with a high octane start, not letting their guests settle and fashioned a number of openings.
Shields blasted right across the face of Mark Colby’s goal before a minute was even played and Ciaran McGinley’s header was cleared off the goalline by Packie Byrne. Then, from the best move of the match, a long ball from Peoples was chested into the path of Darren McLaughlin by Chris Bradley and after a neat return ball the Milford frontman saw Dave McDonagh hack the ball away from underneath his own crossbar.
Anthenry, who were constantly hemmed in, created just two chances in that opening 45 minutes. Conor Cannon picked Shields’ pocket but his daisy-cutter was turned around the post by McGettigan and then Benny Lawless fizzed a shot wide.
Sixteen minutes into the second half and with Milford continuing to upset Athenry’s rhythm at ever opportunity, there was a scuffle in the middle of the field. Milford’s Damien Casey and Seamie Crowe, Athenry’s former Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder, both pushed opposing players over and McLoughlin took time to consider his options. Referees are constantly berated for not being consistent but that’s certainly not a complaint that could be thrown at Sunday’s referee. Two straight reds.
Athenry’s defence, though, held firm. There was a pinball effect from a McLaughlin cross and although Christy McCafferty stretched and narrowly failed to get contact, Bradley’s acrobatic volley was blocked by McDonagh and belatedly cleared. When the same player had another drive 70 minutes in, goalkeeper Colby got hands on the ball but it sneaked over his head only for Packie Byrne to batter it away two yards from goal.
The visitors, lining out in an unconventional 4-3-1 formation, brought on Alan O’Donovan and he steadied the ship with clever maintenance of possession as the realisation hit both teams one mistake could end their cup run.
Player-manager Doherty, who had earlier amusingly tried to exploit a loophole in the requirement of a manager to stay inside the technical area, by warming up, brought himself on to lead the line alongside McCafferty.
At the end of the first period of extra-time, a McDonagh cross brought a collision between Athenry winger Cannon and McGettigan in the Milford goal. Play stopped for almost seven minutes before the goalkeeper left the field in a tizzy. Strain, who had been number one before dislocating a shoulder, saw out the second period of extra-time and the lottery of penalties was required to provide a differential between two sides that were almost equals.
Athnery’s Stephen Rabitte struck the first penalty crisply into Strain’s bottom left corner and each spot kick that followed was equally well taken as the pressure gauge grew. Ray Moran, O’Donovan, Gary Delaney, Mark Moran and McDonagh gave the away team the lead six times and on each occasion Milford got back to level. Bradley, David Curley, Doherty, McCafferty, Mark Flood and McLaughlin all brought a warming cheer on a chilly afternoon. At 6-6, Ronan Kineen stepped forward and although the Athenry centre-half struck his effort true, Strain saved excellently away to his right. Every eye at Moyle View was then was on Peoples and taking something of a chance, he calmly rolled the ball right down the middle to finally seal the deal before being swamped as the celebrations got underway.
And with Gweedore Celtic and Glenea United losing out against Carrick United and Clonmel Celtic in Tipperary respectively and Lagan Harps going down against Trinity Corinthians the Donegal League, thanks to Milford, have a team to pin their hopes on.
Milford United: Caolan McGettigan (Ian Strain 100); Paul Shields (Pauric Curley 71), Mark Flood, Paddy Peoples, David Curley; Ciaran McGinley (Peter Doherty 78), Joey Cullen, Damien Casey, Darren McLaughlin; Christy McCafferty, Chris Bradley.
Athenry: Mark Colby; Stephen Rabitte, Ronan Kineen, Packie Byrne, Dave McDonagh; Conor Cannon (Ray Moran 100), Gary Delaney, Seamie Crowe, Gary Forde (Alan O’Donovan 58); Cathal Fahy, Benny Lawless (Mark Moran 75).
Referee: Vincent McLoughlin.
There were few complaints from those in the home crowd when Vincent McLoughlin brandished his first red card to Cathal Fahy. So, when you live by the sword then you die by it too. Unusually, all three incidents were practically identical and so too was the punishment.
Man of the match
Even if Paddy Peoples hadn’t have scored the decisive penalty he still would have got the award. The central defender was impenetrable. There were also good showings from David Curley and Chris Bradley, who will be in Australia when the next round rolls into town. Few could be faulted in reality and Athenry’s Alan O’Donovan looked the pick of their players.
There was a great crowd in the region of 300 and Milford and McGettigan’s Bakery put on a spread for all, a gesture that was appreciated, particularly the travelling Galway party. Days like Sunday are good for a football club and a town in general and thanks to the team Milford will get another opportunity to roll out the red carpet next month.