UCD Shell Shocked by Harps

Photo: Gareth PhelanUCD face an uphill battle to gain promotion to the Premier Division, after they fell to a 1-0 home defeat to Finn Harps in the Belfield Bowl on Friday night.Coming into the match the bookmakers had Harps as slight favourites, a deserved title with the Northerners having thumped champions Wexford Youths 4-1 two weeks earlier. This was the side’s fifth meeting of the season, with results being split in the previous four, a win each and two entertaining draws.Collie O’Neill will have told his players to get in early. Harps have been quick starters in a lot of their games in the regular season. But within a minute, UCD were behind to one of the quickest goals in League of Ireland history, as Ciaran Coll gave the northern side a 1-0 lead after just 24 seconds. Wilfried Tagbo did well to burst past Mark Langtry, his out swinging cross was met at the back post by an unmarked Coll, who bulleted a header past Conor O’Donnell to give Ollie Horgan’s men the perfect start, and send the travelling numbers into raptures. It was Coll’s first goal for nearly three years. The Students were stunned, and it took them 15 minutes for them to even muster an attack, but Ciaran Gallagher was alert to shut down Conor Cannon. Harps had the best defence in the league during the regular season, and it could be seen in the way they played on Friday, with Damian McNulty managing to snuff out any long balls over the top. They should have doubled their score on 29 minutes. Gareth Harkin managed to weave his way past Mark Langtry, took on Tomas Boyle, but with support from Tagbo, decided to take it on himself, and he skewed the ball left and wide of Conor O’Donnell’s left hand post. As the half wore on however, UCD started to put together some passing moves, getting forward into the Harp’s half more. Conor Cannon chased every ball, however Ryan Swan, who has been UCD’s standout player of the year, was not able to connect with his strike partner enough. The closest the home side came to scoring was when Langtry released Jamie Doyle down the left wing, taking it inside McNulty, but he blasted his shot high and wide of Ciaran Gallagher’s goal.The second half began similar to the first, with the away side on the attack. Tony McNamee’s left footed cross on 48 minutes was somehow nodded over by Keith Cowan, who was unmarked outside the six-yard box. There was a noticeable pace to the UCD attack in the second 45, and they created their first chance five minutes later. Jack Watson came out onto the wing, breaking clear of Packie Mailey, but opting to shoot instead of cross, he only found the Belfield trees.The Harps responded within ten minutes. League veteran Kevin McHugh, looking to add to his seven goals so far this year, played a one-two with Raymond Foy, but his effort flew inches over the post, with O’Donnell rooted to the ground. O’Neill then emptied his bench, throwing longtime UCD servant Robbie Benson on to try and break through a stubborn defence. He had an immediate impact, with 20 minutes to play, a huge penalty shout for the college. The ball bounced up from a Gary O’Neill corner. The shot by Boyle appeared to be blocked by the arm of a man in white, but referee Ben Connolly adjudged it to have hit a chest, much to the frustrations of Boyle.It lit a fire underneath the home side. They began to push and try and force the equalizer. It very nearly worked when Gary O’Neill and Jamie Doyle linked up outside the Harp’s box, but the former couldn’t direct his attempt on target. Harps were content to sit back and try to catch UCD on the counter attack, and they had the ball in the net in bizarre fashion with just over 10 minutes remaining. A long throw in from McNulty bounced in the box, past BJ Banda, went up and over O’Donnell and into the net. Connolly correctly disallowed the goal. Harps manager Horgan was furious with the fourth official, screaming that Banda had got a touch on it. ??He was even angrier two minutes later, when McNamee wasted a glorious opportunity to seal the tie and possibly the playoff. O’Donnell rushed out of his goal to close down Matt Crossan, heading the ball out for a throw, which was quickly taken by Crossan. With the keeper scrambling to get back onto his line, McNamee angled a volley, but his accuracy was way off, when he should’ve scored.Into injury time, and UCD threw everyone forward to try and level the tie ahead of the second leg. Jack Watson should’ve done so. A slip by Mailey allowed the midfielder in one on one with Gallagher. Watson tried to place it low in to the bottom left corner, but Gallagher stuck a right foot out to deny him. Boyle then headed over from a corner, but with the last attack of the game, Mick Leahy wasted UCD’s best chance. Coming to his feet at the penalty spot, Leahy controlled the ball well, but somehow managed to scuff it far wide of the target, much to the relief of Horgan. The onrushing Gallagher may have put him off, but the defender should’ve scored.UCD now must go up to Finn Park this Friday with a deficit and score, but the task will be difficult. Harps have gone the last quarter of the season unbeaten, churning in 16 clean sheets in the process, and they will look to secure the tie. The winners will lie in wait for either Drogheda United or Limerick, when 180 minutes of football will complete next year’s Premier Division line up. UCD– Conor O’Donnell, Mick Leahy, Maxi Kouogun (Tobin 34), Tomás Boyle, Mark Langtry, Jamie Doyle, Dylan Watts (Robbie Benson 57), Gary O’Neill, Jack Watson: Conor Cannon (Daire O’Connor 68), Ryan Swan.??Finn Harps - Ciaran Gallagher: Damien McNulty, Keith Cowan, Packie Mailey, Ciaran Coll (Matt Crossan 27): Josh Mailey, Gareth Harkin, Raymond Foy, Tony McNamee: Wilfried Tagbo (BJ Banda 61), Kevin McHugh (Michael Funston 78)