There was a theory that when Mervue United meet Finn Harps in Ballybofey, the two sides’ chemistry brings with it a guarantee of goals - but there was only one goal those who attended Finn Park left talking about on Friday night.
Finn Harps 1
Mervue United 0
In the second of two minutes of first half stoppage time, Sean McCarron collected a quick Thomas McMonagle free on his chest and, from 25 yards, volleyed the ball on his left foot as it fell, across the bows of a fully-stretched Conor Gleeson, dropping into the top corner. It was a stunning goal.
With 25 goals in the previous six meetings between the sides in the north-west, including 4-3 and 3-2 home wins for Harps last season, the one-goal win thanks to McCarron’s corker was enough to lift Peter Hutton’s side to second in the First Division. One suspects the clean sheet and three points would’ve been every bit as pleasing for the Harps manager.
Hutton named an unchanged side for the first time this season, hoping to build on the fine 3-2 win against league leaders Longford Town just six nights beforehand.
Unbeaten in four going into the match, Mervue had the first sight on goal but following a whisking throw-in from Mark Ludden into the Harps penalty area, Noel Varney volleyed harmlessly wide from the area’s edge.
That unchanged Harps team meant Gary Merritt kept his place on the right of midfield and the Milford native began promisingly. It was his cross that Kevin McHugh headed just over on 16 minutes in a bright opening for Harps, although one in which they seldom tested Conor Gleeson in the Mervue goal.
Merritt was scampering into space again on 28 minutes from a diagonal ball from Damien McNulty and although the centre was exactly where it should’ve been – into the corridor of opportunity between the defence and goalkeeper – it was Gary Kelly who cleared the danger.
Then, with the action exclusively in fits and starts, Merritt, having cut inside on his left foot, drew the first save of the evening from Gleeson, down low to his left which he held onto well, on 35 minutes.
Although they’d a few opportunities, at that stage, had it been a boxing match the referee would’ve told both competitors to fight on. The goal-fest of previous meetings was mentioned only in passing.
McCarron’s goal, though, lit up the end of the half and gave Harps something to hold onto having lost their previous outing on home turf, 1-0 against Waterford United. It was the Derry native’s sixth goal of the campaign and since it was so close to the interval, it brought warmth to Harps supporters’ cups of tea as the sun ran off into the arms of the night thief.
Johnny Glynn’s Mervue had lost only once all season in the league, a bizarre 5-3 loss at Cobh Ramblers last month, but without the injured club captain, Tom King, and former Harps midfielder Gary Curran, the Galway side struggled to make any real inroads.
Thomas McMonagle, playing left back, was wide with an ambitious effort from the left flank just after the hour. Kelly, the Mervue midfielder who had been booked in the latter stages of the first half, was fortunate to stay on the field after a heavy challenge on Merritt.
Ciaran Gallagher, the Harps goalkeeper, had a very quiet night for the most part in his first appearance since getting called up to the Republic of Ireland U-21 squad for training ahead of their international friendly against Denmark on May 31.
Whether or not Gallagher would’ve got to a header from Gary Shanahan in the last minute would’ve been debatable but the unmarked Mervue striker headed wide from 16-year-old Ryan Manning’s cross. Shanahan, right at the end, got in one-on-one but Gallagher, much to the relief of the home support in the crowd of 580, made a great save to ensure the points stayed in Ballybofey.
Finn Harps: Ciaran Gallagher; James Doherty, Keith Cowan, Damien McNulty, Thomas McMonagle; Gary Merritt (Matthew Harkin 87), Michael Funston, Tommy Bonner, Ciaran Coll; Sean McCarron (Shaun McGowan 85), Kevin McHugh.
Mervue United: Conor Gleeson; Paul Sinnott, Michael McSweeney, Michael Elwood (Joe Woods 77), Stephen Walsh; Jason Molloy, Gary Kelly (Brendan Lavelle 73), Noel Varley, Mark Ludden; Ryan Manning, Garey Shanahan.
Referee: Robert Harvey.
Man of the match
Harps were relatively comfortable and value for their lead until the bitter end, when they had Ciaran Gallagher to thank for ensuring three points wasn’t cut to one. But their most creative player on the night was Gary Merritt, who had a fine first half.
Sean McCarron’s goal was worthy of winning any match and it was a real diamond in the coal bunker. The strike meant Harps didn’t have to go chasing after the break and contended well with a Mervue United side who have caused them trouble down the years.
Robert Harvey really ought to have sent Gary Kelly off. The Mervue midfielder would’ve got a yellow had he not got one beforehand. Visiting manager Johnny Glynn realised the slice of luck and took the player off moments later.