FAI Junior Cup
The remaining teams in this seasons FAI Junior Cup installment will tonight raise a glass to Stephen Donnelly after his goal blew the tournament wide open.
The former Bohs front man scored the only goal as Usher Celtic beat short odd favourites Sheriff YC to ensure the reigning champions and widely feared Junior phenomenon are no more in terms of the contest.
In recent season Usher have closed a gap on one of the side that have been in five of the last six semi final, but prior to a wet Friday night they still hadn’t managed to beat Alan Reilly’s men and that aligned with the Inner Cities sides FAI Junior expertise meant they were still underdogs going into this fourth round clash.
However, Usher proved under dogs with bite and became the first team since Liffey Wanderers in the 2014/15 final to beat the Hoops.
Although recent performances suggested Usher always had a chance going into the clash the post match wails of delight around Grange Gorman indicted just how much the win meant to the hosts and it will certainly go down as a historic night in the clubs history.
There might not have been wailing around the country, but clubs across the board still standing in the tournament may also celebrate the victory as one of the most feared teams in the contest excited stage left before the open draw for the first time in nigh on decade.
Just like when the pair meet in the league at the same ground two weeks ago there was nice mix of tension and excitement in the air before kick off.
That anticipation was generated by what was at stake rather than anyone predicting the two attack minded football sides were about to produce a footballing classic.
Indeed the opening exchanges were more fight than flair with tackles celebrated like goals. Neither side could really assert a pattern of play. Like they did two weeks ago Sheriff went big early and used the Xabi Alonso style accuracy of keeper Lee Murphy to look for the likes of John Rock, but the visitors struggled to pick up second balls with holding midfielder Leroy Staunton sweeping in front of the back four effectively.
Usher again showed touches of neat football, but both Jordan Buckely and Donnelly seemed to pick up the ball too far away from goal to show the watching crowd just why they were picked for the most recent Ireland squad.
The hosts wing backs were also very deep possibly due to Sheriff’s approach or maybe it was a coaching directive. Neither side could really get on top and chances were at a premium, but as the half progressed their was a sense an Usher team noted for its slick approach was relishing the battle. They seemed to rejoice in showing they could hassle and bite and they seemed to grow in confidence as particularly in midfield they began to win some physical battles.
During that period midway through the half Jordan Buckley had two trade mark runs, one which forced Lee Murphy into a save at his near post.
However, as the half drew to a close Sheriff began to find the rhythm they are renowned for and they shaded the latter stages of the half.
Indeed John Rock headed inches wide when all around the ground expected the prolific front man to score after Darren Dunne brilliantly placed the ball on his head just minutes before Karl Lynam produced a marvelous save low to his left after Paul Murphy had crossed for Sean Murphy to head goalward.
There were some around the ground suggesting Sheriff were just set to take over and would come out ready to up the gears for the second half.
However, within seconds of the restart the hosts were ahead. Right from the tip off Usher found themselves advancing into opposition territory and the ball bounced into the path of Donnelly. Sheriff backed off somewhat and the striker brilliantly passed the ball into the bottom corner from 20 yards.
There wasn’t panic among the Sheriff support. They had seen their side perform FAI Junior Cup miracles over the years and with over 40 minutes remaining they felt there was enough time to turn things around.
Alan Reilly did change things up and was able to introduce the likes of Keith Rickard and Stephen Murphy within minutes, while Chris Higgins, who knows what it’s like to score in a final, followed.
Sheriff to their credit pushed on and started to move the ball quicker, but Usher finally began to break with real intent. Donnelly and Buckley looked a real threat and although they didn’t have as much of the ball they had the better chances over the next few minutes.
Buckley had a header saved before Donnelly broke in behind the now two man visiting back line only to hit the side netting not long before he clipped the out side of the post with a free.
Sheriff where pushing on that much that the hosts looked just one composed pass from a one on one chance. However, getting the ball to make that pass was proving a problem.
Sheriff produced wave after wave of attack and pinned the hosts back. It was back against the walls stuff at times, but Usher rolled up their sleeves and battled.
Staunton became Claude Makelele on steroids and when he wasn’t mopping up he was heading clear and blocking.
Also impressive during that period were the back three with Darren McDonnell particularly standing out. The central defender headed clear tens of times and performed admirably against one of the best centre forwards in the junior game, John Rock.
During that period of constant pressure Dunne had an effort blocked, Stephen Murphy had a free just wide and Lester an effort from range over.
However, the closest the visitors came to an equaliser was when Darren Dunne dove to head a low Lee Fetherson cross, but his back post effort was blocked.
As the clocked ticked closer to 90 Sheriff went all out for the equaliser and the hosts had two more great chances on the break one neat move saw Donnelly cut in on his right foot and fire over.
Then when three between Buckley and Ger Jordan ended up with the striker rounding Lee Murphy and pulling back for Donnelly it looked game over, but John Lester somehow managed to get back on the line to clear.
There were some predicting that miss might cost the host, but they saw the game out well and registered a win their support won’t forget for a long time.