Drogheda United picked up their second victory of the league campaign after recovering from a goal down to beat Shelbourne 3-1 at Tolka Park on Friday.
Prior to a ball being kicked, however, the fixture was given a presidential seal of approval when, moments before kick-off, it was announced via the tannoy that Michael D. Higgins would be in attendance. He will not have been disappointed with the entertainment on show as the Boynesiders scored three times in the final 15 minutes, with late sub Fabio O’Brien starting and finishing the scoring. He reminded manager Mick Cooke of his importance to the team. He reminded Drogheda fans why they hold ‘Fabio’ in such high-esteem.
Opposite President Higgins in the away stand, the travelling Drogs in were in high-spirits and made the most of an early break-in-play to request a wave from former Drogheda United captain Paul Crowley. He declined, but almost gave the visiting fans something more precious to celebrate. Crowley’s misplaced pass ended up at the feet of Graham Rusk. Rusk, in space, charged down the Shelbourne flank but he thrashed wide from an acute angle.
Such was the poverty of Drogheda’s early labours, the away team were limited to taking pop-shots from range in a bid to open the scoring. Rusk and Gavin Brennan both let fly from distance without troubling Ger Hanley in the Shelbourne goal. It was left-back Brian Gannon, however, whose effort from range nearly gave Drogheda a surprise lead. The right-back saw his well-struck volley bounce off the post.
Down the other end, another Drogheda United old boy, Sean Brennan, regularly tormented his former employers throughout the first 45. Brennan, brother to Ryan and Gavin, was the stand-out performer on the field for much of the game, with a combination of pace and skill proving problematic for his former team-mates. His superbly struck free-kick looked to be sailing into the top corner without the intervention of goalkeeper Gabriel Sava, and later failed to keep his overhead kick under the crossbar after excellent solo play had initially forged the opportunity.
With Dean Kelly also impressive for Shels, this did not look a Shelbourne team who had netted just once all season. There was organisation in their defence while the front-men attacked with a brio seldom seen at Tolka Park this season and, on the stroke of half time, manager Alan Matthews watched the pressure bear fruit.
Unmarked from a corner, defender Brian Shortall got on the end of Sean Brennan’s out-swinging cross to nod the home team in front going into the interval.
Within minutes of restarting the match, Mick Cooke’s half-time team-talk was very nearly wasted, with Sean Brennan again proving a menace. Brennan cut inside Brian Gannon on the right-hand side only to see his effort blocked before it had the chance to trouble Sava.
Despite the early scare in the beginning of the half, Drogheda began to assert themselves in possession, without forging many opportunities to restore parity to the scoreline. Failing to create chances is swiftly becoming the central motif of Cooke’s Drogheda United side whose travails in the final third were all too familiar for both players and supporters.
It was not until the 70th minute, with the introduction of Fabio O’Brien that sparked the turning point in proceedings. O’Brien, omitted from the starting line-up again, will believe he did enough in the remaining 20 minutes to secure a starting berth against Sligo Rovers on Tuesday evening.
The club’s record goalscorer needed just six minutes to have an impact when he nipped in ahead of Graham Gartland to head past Hanley following a great cross from Gavin Brennan. Game on.
Gary O’Neill, largely anonymous for the opening 85 minutes, then broke Shels hearts by heading home David Cassidy’s whipped free-kick before Fabio then put the icing on the victory by confidently dispatching a stoppage-time penalty after Michael Daly was brought down in the area.
Perhaps a flattering scoreline, though Mick Cooke won’t care for now, nor will the Drogheda United fans who were as joyous as the home supporters were furious, with boos ringing out around Tolka Park at full-time.
Shelbourne: Ger Hanley; Pat Flynn, Brian Shortall (Robert Bayly ’88), Graham Gartland, Jack Memery; Sean Brennan (Mark Leech ’88), Paul Crowley, Stephen Hurley, Robert Cornwall (Adam Hanlon ‘25); Philip Hughes, Dean Kelly.
Unused Subs: Craig Mooney, Darren Tinnelly, Niall Burdon.
Yellow Cards: Gartland (4), Hurley (49), Crowley (72), Shortall (84).
Drogheda United: Gabriel Sava, Alan Byrne, Brian Gannon, Derek Prendergast ©, Shane Grimes; Ryan Brennan, Gavin Brennan, David Cassidy, Paul O’Conor; Gary O’Neil (Michael Daly ’88), Graham Rusk (Declan O’Brien ’71).
Unused Subs: Stephen Quigley, Philip Hand, Alan McNally, Dean Gaynor, Micheal Schlingermann.
Yellow Cards: Prendergast (9), O’Brien (76).