12 months on from his penalty shoot-out heroics against Shamrock Rovers, goalkeeper Ciaran Kelly came off the bench at the 11th hour for Sligo Rovers and, yet again, proved the difference in the contest of spot-kicks.
This time, unlike last year, the specialist stopper didn’t manage to keep a clean sheet but, with his manager Paul Cook once again unable to watch the final act, Kelly’s two saves, coupled with four successful spot-kicks – the decisive one coming from Raffaele Cretaro – meant the cup went back to Sligo for the second year in succession.
But spare more than a thought for Shelbourne, who bucked the pre-match odds by taking the lead and then, having had Barry Clancy harshly sent off just past the half-hour mark, were obliged to play almost another 90 minutes with ten men. At the end of it all, heartbreak at the loss and dismay about officialdom were the dominant emotions in the Shels dressing room as, despite having the considerable consolation of top-flight football to look forward to next season, they had seen the First Division title and now the FAI Cup elude their grasp right at the death.
But for Sligo’s huge support in a crowd of 21,662 – which included the Ireland management team of Giovanni Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli — it was déjà vu all over again, and the fans from the north-west were more than happy to celebrate their very own Groundhog Day as skipper Richie Ryan lifted the trophy to the night sky over Ballsbridge.
Against a below par Sligo side missing the talents of the injured Joseph Ndo, Philly Hughes had opened the scoring in the 30th minute, just seconds after an increasingly impressive Shels had been denied when a Barry Clancy header came thumping back off the angle of crossbar and post.
As the newly-promoted side kept up the spell of pressure, there didn’t at first seem to be much danger when John Sullivan lobbed the ball first-time back into the box, but Hughes showed fine technique and a sharp eye for an opportunity by getting the wrong side of Peers to flick the dropping ball wide of Brendan Clarke.
Hughes celebrated in front of the delighted band of Shels supporters behind the Havelock Square goal, as the hot favourites from the top-flight found themselves a goal down. But in the 36th minute, in a desperately unwelcome twist for what was shaping up to be a thoroughly entertaining game, Sligo suddenly found themselves a man up.
Shels’ Barry Clancy was already on a yellow card, for a foul just two minutes earlier, when he went down in the box under a challenge from John Russell. In truth, it seemed an innocuous enough incident and so Clancy – in common with most people in the stadium – appeared genuinely in a state of shock when referee Richie Winter brandished a second yellow card, for simulation, and then the mandatory red which sent him walking disconsolately to the line.
The spirited resolve of the ten men was broken just two minutes after the restart, the overlapping Iarfhlaith Davoran firing in a rasping drive from the left which completely outfoxed Dean Delany, the goalkeeper diving one way as the ball veered past his studs into the net.
Shels would now have to try to give as much as take, a situation which seemed ripe with possibilities for as fluent an attacking side as Sligo. But, to their credit, Shels forced the match into extra-time and all the way to a penalty shootout, with Ciaran Kelly entering the fray two minutes into time added on.
Then, coming off his line on both occasions, the keeper saved penalties from Kevin Dawson and Colm James, and while Karl Birmingham found the net for Shels, successful spot kicks from Eoin Doyle, Richie Ryan, Alan Keane and Raffaele Cretaro ensured that a day of many twists and turns ended as it began — with the cup staying in the northwest.
SHELBOURNE: Delaney, Ryan, Boyle, Paisley, Byrne, McGill (Birmingham 119), Dawson, Sullivan (Byrne 58), Clancy, Cassidy (James 117), Hughes.
SLIGO ROVERS: Clarke (Kelly 119), Keane, McGuinness, Peers, Davoren, Ryan, Ventre, Dillon (Blinkhorn 59), Russell (Cretaro 77), Greene, Doyle.
Referee: Richie Winter (Wicklow).