On the eve of Donegal’s demolition of Down in Clones, Finn Harps’ long suffering supporters were treated to a game full of incident and high drama in Ballybofey on Saturday night.
Finn Harps 3
Wexford Youths 3
In the end, Harps were denied what would have been a magnificent win when they conceded an equaliser right at the death. They’d produced a brilliant turnaround to come from 2-0 down to lead 3-2 with just four minutes left to play.
But in dramatic circumstances, Wexford substitute, Tom Elmes’ hit an equaliser with literally the last kick of the game. Deep into stoppage time, he saw his shot from the edge of the box strike the unfortunate James Doherty’s outstretched leg and loop over the despairing dive of Ciaran Gallagher.
The goal came after Harps failed to clear their lines following a corner kick and when they needlessly gave away possession as they came away with the ball, Elmes punished them in the cruellest way.
In fairness to the visitors, they probably didn’t deserve to loose having played their part in what was a hugely enjoyable contest. They play a wonderful brand of football and their policy of getting as many men into attack as quickly as possibly caused the home defence no end of bother in the first half.
Wexford took less than eight minutes to nose in front. Shane Nolan worked an opening wide on the left and from an almost impossible angle, he curled the ball beyond the back-peddling Gallagher for a spectacular opener.
By the midway point of the half, they doubled their advantage. This time Harps were caught square at the back, allowing Joseph Mulcahy to be slipped in on goal. The Wexford man’s initial effort was saved by the outrushing Gallagher but the loose ball ran kindly for Mulcahy who rolled it into the empty net.
Harps, on the back of two decent results against Mervue and Athlone, might well have been a little too cocky in their approach early on. But credit to them, they eventually lifted their game and crucially hit back with a goal on 27 minutes. Matthew Harkin, back in the side, delivered an inswinging corner which was flicked goalwards by Keith Cowan and nodded over the line by Thomas McMonagle.
Harps had other chances with Kevin McHugh twice denied by the visiting keeper.
But in truth, they were perhaps fortunate not to have been further behind at the break. Ciaran Gallagher produced a wonderful save to deny Brian Nolan from long range just before the interval.
The home side forced the issue after half time and were level on the hour when Kevin McHugh produced a moment of class, curling a 25 year free kick up and over the ball and in past keeper, Doyle.
Paul McVeigh, who netted twice in their last home game, was thrown on by Peter Hutton and soon after, the creative Gary Merritt was introduced on the left.
Harps mounted attack after attack and a string of corners as they sought the lead. Then with just four minutes remaining, Shaun McGowan capped a terrific midfield performance with a fine strike which looked to have won it for his team.
But Elmes had the final say although even he would admit his last gasp equaliser had more than a touch of good fortune.
Finn Harps: Ciaran Gallagher, James Doherty, Thomas McMonagle, Keith Cowan (Gary Merritt 79), Mark Scoltock, Aaron O’Hagan, Adam Clarke (Paul McVeigh 60), Shaun McGowan, Matthew Harkin, Kevin McHugh, Ciaran Coll.
Wexford Youths: Graham Doyle, Shane Clarke, Shaun Corcoran, Jimmy Carr, James Scallon, Brian Nolan, Craig Wall, Danny Furlong, Shane Nolan (Tom Elmes 84), Joseph Mulcahy, Dean Broaders (Glen Hone 78).
Referee: Phil Caschera.
Phil Caschera had a decent game but the decision to send Harps goalkeeping coach, Paddy Hannigan from the bench towards the finish did appear over the top. It seems one of the assistants got into some verbals with Hannigan after the coach and the rest of the Harps bench celebrated McGowan’s late goal by running onto the pitch. The assistant promptly complained to the referee who ordered Hannigan to the dressing rooms.
The equaliser in the 94th minute which denied Harps the win. Harps had failed to clear their lines on several occasions following an injury time Wexford corner. Then as Ciaran Coll eventually won possession outside his area, his attempted pass was cut out and within seconds, Thomas Elmes’ deflected effort was in the back of the net. Coll will still be wondering why he didn’t just find Row Z.
Man of the match
It was a great game to watch and even though neither side has much to play for at this stage of the season, there was a real want to win in both camps. Mark Scoltock, playing in his first home match since his recent arrival looked pretty good at centre half while others to shine for the home side were keeper, Ciaran Gallagher, the experienced Kevin McHugh and the busy Matthew Harkin.
Wexford had some decent performers as well but man of the match was Harps midfielder Shaun McGowan who was excellent throughout. Strong in the tackle, he carried his team forward with some wonderful surging runs and scored a fine goal with just four minutes remaining.
Hutton: It felt like a defeat
The mood in the home dressing room area following Saturday night’s game was not surprisingly pretty low.
Harps had been denied another home win after Wexford grabbed an equaliser that from a home perspective, never should have been conceded.
Peter Hutton kept his squad in the dressing room for a little normal than usual and even joined the players on the pitch for their cool down long after the final whistle. It was pretty clear from the body language on the pitch that the player-boss was doing his best to look on the positives.
“It feels like a defeat, given that we had done so well to get back into the game,” he said afterwards.
“We gave them a two goal start and we worked extremely hard to get back into the game and take a 3-2 lead. So to throw it away with literally the last kick of the game is devastating. It’s very hard on the boys. For all their effort and endeavour they only get a point rather than the three.
“It would have been a massive three points. It shows the exceptional resilience and character of the boys to get themselves back into he game and into a leading position. But I suppose you have to say, fair play to Wexford too. They just kept plugging away and unfortunately we didn’t clear our lines with seconds to go. It was probably a bit of inexperience and naivety as well. We tried to stay on the ball when we shouldn’t have, we should have just put it out and over the stand.
“Even the equaliser, it was so fortuitous. The boy just hits a shot and it comes off James Doherty’s heel and just loops up over Ciaran (Gallagher).”
Hutton added: “To be quite honest, a few weeks ago at 2-0 down, we would have probably been beat three or four.
“It shows we have now started to learn a wee bit in regards to resilience and character, desire and fight.”
Next up for Harps is the long trek to Waterford on Saturday night and there’s a good chance that Tommy Bonner will be available. The Letterkenny man pulled up in training last Thursday night and failed a fitness test before Saturday night’s game.
“We’ll look forward to it. We won there the last time, it was the time Ciaran Gallagher got the bad injury,” Peter Hutton said.
“It’s a good venue and a good pitch. Waterford are on a great run at the moment. They are one of the form teams, themselves and Limerick. They are up there and for a lot of people they were possible candidates for promotion this year. You can see now why, they are getting bodies back that they didn’t have for much of the season.
“But we fear no-one. I think there is a very fine line in regards to the rest of the teams in the league. If we acquit ourselves like we did for the second half and the last 15 minutes of the first half (against Wexford), then I think we’ll give them a right good game.”