Philip Hughes was the hat-trick hero at Tolka Park on Friday night, as Finn Harps were narrowly defeated in an event-filled clash in the SSE Airtricity League First Division.
Finn Harps 2
The Ballybofey men now find themselves on a run of six games without victory in all competitions - their last success was a dramatic 3-2 away triumph over Cobh Ramblers - and although they led twice during the course of the contest, their third reversal of the current campaign ensured that they relinquished top-spot in the second-tier table.
The visitors had claimed four points from their two previous encounters against the north Dubliners (including a scoreless draw at the same venue on the opening weekend of the season), and following a bright opening to the proceedings, they ultimately broke the deadlock with 11 minutes gone on the clock.
A Wilfred Tagbo shot from the right-hand side had been turned behind by Shels custodian Greg Murray, but from Gareth Harkin’s subsequent corner, right-back Damien McNulty found the net with a powerful header.
This was a major boost for Harps, and just three minutes after McNulty’s opener, they also held a numerical advantage.
Shels striker Mark Sandford caught Harps netminder Ciaran Gallagher with a high boot as he chased a long-ball, and much to the frustration of the vocal home crowd, Waterford referee Andrew Mullally issued a straight red-card for the offence.
This really threw down the gauntlet to the hosts, but even though Harps continued to offer a significant attacking threat in the final-third, Shels coped admirably for the remainder of the half.
Indeed, they were offered a major lifeline four minutes prior to the interval, when the raiding Ryan Robinson was upended inside the penalty area by McNulty. This presented Hughes with an opportunity to level matters from the spot, and the always-dependable front-man made no mistake from a distance of 12 yards.
This goal left the tie delicately poised when the action resumed, but within 30 seconds of the restart, Harps had restored their lead courtesy of a Tony McNamee finish from close-range.
The introduction of Tommy McMonagle as a half-time substitute in place of Matt Crossan had altered the shape of the Harps side, but Ollie Horgan’s charges were also reduced to ten-men eight minutes into the second period, when centre-half Keith Cowan received his marching orders for pulling back Hughes inside the six-yard box.
Hughes stepped up to the mark once again, and despite getting a strong hand to the resulting effort, Gallagher was beaten by the veteran Shels attacker for a second time on the night.
As a result of this score, the confidence levels of Shels had increased, and just shy of the hour mark, they turned the game on its head.
Hughes raced on to a perfectly-weighted through-ball, before completing his hat-trick with a cool finish into the bottom left-hand corner.
Patience was now required from Harps if they were to salvage something from this encounter, and they breathed a massive sigh of relief when a speculative long-distance Hughes attempt rebounded off the woodwork.
Garbhan Friel and Josh Mailey were introduced as Harps aimed to rein in the challenge of Shels once more, and the lively Tagbo also had a glorious chance deep into second-half stoppage-time.
Yet, thanks to a superb point-blank save from Murray, it was Shelbourne who emerged with all three points.
Shelbourne: Greg Murray; Adam O’Connor, Ryan Robinson, Sean Heaney, Evan Osam; Dylan McGlade, Jake Donnelly (Paul Andrews 90), Craig Walsh, Conor Earley (Alan Kehoe 85); Mark Sandford, Philip Hughes (James English 77).
Finn Harps: Ciaran Gallagher; Damien McNulty, Keith Cowan, Packie Mailey (Garbhan Friel 68), Ciaran Coll; Wilfred Tagbo, Matt Crossan (Tommy McMonagle 46), Raymond Foy (Josh Mailey 84), Gareth Harkin; Tony McNamee, Kevin McHugh.
Referee: Andrew Mullally (Waterford).