Two goals from Paul Rua McBride rescued Gweedore Celtic’s dreams of retaining the Brian McCormick Sports Premier Division title on an afternoon of high drama at Milford United’s Moyle View Park.
Milford United 2
Gweedore Celtic 2
Midway through the second half the side managed by Hugh Rua Gallagher trailed their hosts by two goals to nil, although that looked as though it might still even be enough as Castlefin Celtic had levelled their match against the other title hopefuls, Glenea United.
However, substitute Tomas Diver missed a second half penalty for Gweedore and it looked as though their chances were evaporating. McBride did pull one back from a header but when Kevin Mulhern restored Glenea’s advantage with 19 minutes to go at Parkview it seemed as though the title was on its way to Glaserchoo.
However, with a minute of stoppage time played at Milford, McBride, who became a father for the first time last week when his wife Feena gave birth to baby daughter Róise, scored a dramatic equaliser to force a winner-takes-all play-off between Glenea and Gweedore on May 13.
Gweedore went into the game with a two-point cushion knowing a win would eliminate all the other permutations. However, third-placed Milford have proven to be unafraid of any reputations this season and with an Ulster FA Cup final to compete in this coming weekend against Clonmany Shamrocks, had players competing for places.
They started well and led by a single goal at half-time. Ciaran McGinley had a simple tap-in on 19 minutes when, following a throw-in from Pauric Curley, Karl Doogan flicked on in front of Gweedore goalkeeper Michael McKelvey. At that stage, Glenea, through Michael Barry on five minutes, had doubled Gweedore’s woe.
Gweedore, having lost only once all season, are a tough nut to crack but they weren’t at their fluid best in the first 45 minutes.
However, with the going so heavy in places some of the local children amused themselves by kicking the content of the pitchside puddles at one another, there was a wintry feel as a war of attrition ensued.
The closest the visitors came to levelling in the first half was when Gary Whoriskey wasted a decent opening in a one-on-one situation with Ian Strain following an exquisite throughball from Eamonn Cannon.
Whoriskey could only ruffle the side-netting, although on a couple of other occasions the former Finn Harps player did go close. From a long range free-kick he drew a good stop from Strain and then was out of luck with a volley that flashed just past the post.
Gweedore started the second half knowing they didn’t want to leave themselves requiring a favour from Castlefin - who required a draw themselves to escape the promotion-relegation play-off - but it was Milford who cemented their advantage. On 54 minutes, a lofted ball into the penalty area from Joey Cullen was fumbled by McKelvey and McGinley slotted home a second goal to send a chill down the spine of those from west Donegal.
Realising the seriousness of their situation, Gweedore piled me forward. Forty-three goal striker Diver, who had just returned from his honeymoon, was drafted in and within minutes won a penalty after he was tripped by Mark Flood. Twenty-four minutes remained. Diver took responsibility himself but scuffed the kick onto the base of the post and Milford cleared.
Gweedore’s trophy was slipping through their fingertips and although a flurry of text messages from Castlefin told of an equalising goal from Ronan Tourish - which meant if the scores stayed the same the championship trophy would be on its way to An Screaban - the brief solace was precarious to say the least.
Two minutes after the missed penalty, McBride, who had been marshalling the reduced number of Gweedore defenders, planted a header past Strain to breathe fire into Gweedore’s bellies following a Whoriskey corner.
A second Glenea goal, meanwhile, from Mulhern meant the side managed by Tom Coll sneaked back to the top of the table with only 19 minutes remaining. They would hold onto that scoreline, a result that means Lifford Celtic are safe at the bottom and it will be Castlefin who must fight for their lives against Cappry Rovers in the promotion-relegation play-off.
And although Milford were hemmed in as Gweedore pressed late on, in PJ Hagan they had a lively frontman who constantly caused consternation to the visiting defence.
From one upfield forage on the break, Hagan’s diagonal shot skimmed inches wide of the post six minutes from time and the visiting support’s collective sign of relief could probably be heard as far off as Castlefin.
At the other end, Colin Ferry, whose brace sealed the championship 12 months ago against Kilmacrennan Celtic, passed up two decent chances. Like Hagan, he was denied by inches and not yards.
A minute into stoppage time, Damien O’Sullivan seized possession although most likely illegally as Damien Casey was floored but referee Vincent McLoughlin waved for play to continue.
Whoriskey, on the left, whipped in an excellent cross and in came McBride to head past Strain for a dramatic late reprieve.
As the car horns tooted, Gweedore, who arrived in Milford looking to seal their title, were delighted to even get the chance to play what is essentially a cup final to retain it. For the protagonists it was a nervy afternoon from start to finish, although for the neutral it provided immense entertainment. And that’s before anything has even been decided.
Milford United: Ian Strain: Brian Peoples, Mark Flood, Paul Shields, David Curley; Pauric Curley, Damien Casey, Karl Doogan, Joey Cullen; Ciaran McGinley (Brenan Murray 72), PJ Hagan.
Gweedore Celtic: Michael McKelvey; Jamie Boyle, Paul Rua McBride, David McGee, David Ward; Damien O’Sullivan, Eamonn Cannon, Eugene McBride (Ciaran McFadden 63), Gary Whoriskey; Fionnan Diver (Tomas Diver 63), Colin Ferry.
Referee: Vincent McLoughlin.