Drogheda United’s euro dream came to an end at the Swedbank Stadion in Malmö last night when a goal at the end of each half gave the home side a 2-0 win on the night and a place in the second Qualifying round against Hibernians of the SPL.
Malmö had pledged themselves to a more attacking approach following last week’s scoreless draw at Tallaght Stadium but they created little in the opening half and looked far more comfortable playing out patiently from the back.
It was a game plan that suited Drogheda perfectly giving them time to track the runs of the Malmö players and ensure that a covering body was always in place to stymie any assault in the final third.
In fact it was Drogheda who created the better chances with Gary O’Neill playing a ball over the top for Declan O’Brien whose effort on goal was squeezed away by Malmo goalkeeper Dahlin. Then, two minutes before the break Mick Daly headed wide from Paul O’Conor’s cross when he had more time than he realised.
But, in the final minute of the half, Malmo striker Tokelo Rantie played in left winger Emil Forsberg who finished well past Gabriel Sava for the opener.
It was a cruel time to conceded with just seconds of play before the half-time whistle blew, but despite the blow Drogheda’s task remained unaltered; one goal would put them through.
Malmö came at Drogheda at the start of the second half and Rantie should have scored on 51 minutes when he was played clean through only to blast his shot wide of the Drogheda goal.
Gavin Brennan then put in an extraordinary saving tackle on Magnus Eriksson who looked odds on to score after Sava had saved well from Rantie’s initial shot. But gradually Malmö’s intent faded as they failed to break through for the second goal they needed to kill the tie.
Graham Rusk replaced the injured Alan McNally and went wide on the left as Alan Byrne dropped to centre back, while Declan O’Brien joined Gary O’Neill up front. But for all that Drogheda tried to press forwards they didn’t manage to force a save from Dahlin in the Malmo goal.
With six minutes to play Paul O’Conor performed a remarkable sliding tackle on Rantie as the powerful South African bore down on Sava’s goal. It was time for a last throw of the dice as Philip Hand replaced Declan O’Brien allowing Gavin Brennan to move up into a striker’s role with O’Neill dropping deeper to try and feed the ball forwards.
There was a moment on 90 minutes when Gavin Brennan tumbled inside the box with Pontus Jansson but the referee saw no reason to award the penalty that would have sent Drogheda through.
Instead, in the 93rd minute, and with the Drogheda players out on their feet, Malmö scored a belated second. Substitute Simon Kroon weaved his way through several defenders before finally evading the challenge of Mick Daly and shooting past Sava.
It felt like an unnecessarily cruel ending to a game in which the Drogheda players did themselves, the club and the league proud. Malmö had crept over a line they expected to cross with a lot more dignity and their final scramble to victory said as much about Drogheda’s qualities as it did about Swedish deficiency.
So the dream is over for another year and attention turns to UCD on Sunday, a game that may offer less in the way of glamour but, for all that, represents the beginning of the road back to European adventure.