With just 12 minutes remaining in normal time, the underdogs looked set to have their day thanks to an early Paul O’Conor goal, but two goals and an assist from substitute North changed everything and, despite Drogheda levelling the game in time added on, Anthony Elding had the last word in the 94th minute to give Sligo the decisive edge in a five-goal thriller in front of a crowd of 17,572.
Only adding to the late drama were angry Drogheda protests at North’s second goal which saw skipper Derek Prendergast sent off by referee Paul Tuite and, unfortunately, a serious-looking knee injury to Sligo’s Gavin Peers which meant both sides finished with 10 men and the game’s playing time was extended by eight incident-packed minutes.
The start of the match had been as dull as the end was dramatic, the opening exchanges scrappy and nervy, with neither side able to retain possession and neither goalkeeper looking even remotely under threat. But all that changed in the 13th minute when Drogheda were handsomely rewarded for the game’s first really constructive move.
Even if Sligo boss Ian Baraclough won’t have been happy that it all stemmed from a corner for his own side, it was still a superbly worked goal. Ryan Brennan was the chief architect with a surging run through the middle before releasing David Cassidy up the left side. Shane Grimes, powering forward on the overlap, did well to stretch to get on the end of Cassidy’s pass and square the ball across the face of goal where, with the Sligo rearguard on the wrong foot, the unmarked O’Conor completed the relatively straightforward task of side-footing to the net.
If that should have been the cue for the favourites to come out of their shell, the underdogs were still not minded to follow the script, Mick Cooke’s team continuing to have the better of things until Joseph Ndo and Kieran Djilai gradually began to impose themselves to give Sligo a foothold in the game.
Despite some promising dead ball situations, however, a real goal chance eluded them as the Drogheda defence stood firm, while the Boynesiders’ habitual runs from deep continued to pose a problem at the other end.
In the 36th minute, Sligo briefly thought they were back on terms but the ball had just crossed the end line before skipper Danny Ventre was able to centre for Elding to head home. That close call heralded a modest increase in Sligo pressure but Drogheda — with O’Conor and David Cassidy excellent in midfield and Gavin Brennan a reliable outlet on the left flank — were still nothing less than full value for their 1-0 advantage at the break.
With the words of Baraclough doubtless ringing in his team’s ears, a resurgent Sligo began the second half at full throttle, roared on by their supporters massed behind Drogheda keeper Michael Schlingermann’s goal. But, with the onus on Rovers to chase the game, Drogheda could afford to play on the counter-attack, making the contest a compelling contrast in styles.
A second goal was disallowed just after the hour mark, and this time it was Drogheda who were left frustrated, Gavin Brennan’s header ruled out for a push on Alan Keane. That was the signal for the Sligo boss to make a change, Evan McMillan coming on for Jeff Henderson as the game assumed a more abrasive edge, with a couple of borderline challenges causing players to see red and the referee to flash yellow.
In what would prove the game’s most significant change in personnel, however, striker Danny North replaced Rafaaele Cretaro in the 70th minute as Sligo desperately sought a lifeline. But they were still looking all too vulnerable at the back and it took a brace of goal-line clearances with just over a quarter of an hour remaining to prevent Drogheda extending their lead.
But it was North who would have the next word, his emphatic finish levelling the scores after an Elding header fell kindly for him in the box following back to back Sligo corners. By then, Drogheda had suffered the blow of seeing O’Conor – up to that point a candidate for man of the match — forced off through injury, and now the momentum in the game swung firmly in favour of the men from the northwest.
But the precise circumstances under which North got his and Sligo’s second sparked massive controversy. Typical of the man, Ndo cleverly lofted a quickly taken free over the Drogheda wall which North converted spectacularly with a swivelled volley. But that was only the first part of a double-whammy for the Louth men. Incensed that the referee had not blown his whistle for the free to be taken, Drogheda players besieged Tuite in protest, as a consequence of which skipper Prendergast — already on a yellow — was sent to the line.
In a blow to Sligo, Peers’ knee then appeared to buckle beneath him, the lengthy treatment which ended with him being stretchered from the field resulting in a full eight minutes of time added on.
Yet, despite tired legs, there was no let up in the action. In the 92nd minute, Drogheda seemed to have salvaged the game when Ryan Brennan broke though to make it 2-2 but, just two minutes later, North made his final decisive intervention, chesting the ball down for Elding to find the roof of the net with a superb shot on the turn.
It all meant celebration once again in the FAI Cup for Sligo but shattering disappointment for the men from Drogheda and their manager Mick Cooke who now leaves the club having been obliged to settle for runners-up medals in no less than three cup competitions in the one season.
Schlingermann, Daly, McNally, Prendergast, Grimes, Cassidy, O’Conor (Rusk 76), R Brennan, Byrne (Hynes 89), G. Brennan, O’ Brien.
Keane, Peers, Henderson (McMillan 64), Davoren, Djilai, Ventre, Ndo, Greene (Gaynor 83), Cretaro (North 70), Elding.
Referee: Paul Tuite.