Athenry FC 0 Westport United 0, (after extra time; United won 4-2 on penalties).
ONLY sport can deliver those moments. Only in sport could a 25-year wait for the most special of trophies be decided in the most dramatic of circumstances.
Both sides had given their all in the most trying of conditions and all of a sudden it was a shootout at Terryland Park.
Enter Gary Cunningham. Athenry had the advantage of going second in the penalty shootout after Westport’s Pat Fitzgerald had his effort saved and then they scored to go one up. David Hoban drew it level for United but then Cunningham made one of the great penalty saves. It was the textbook penalty kick by Gary Delaney, low and hard to the ‘keeper’s right-hand side, but the textbook hadn’t factored in the athleticism and determination of the Westport ‘keeper. He sprung to his right and somehow got a hand on the ball and kept it out of the net.
It was an amazing save and there and then, everyone in Terryland (now Deacy Park) knew that the cup was on its way back to Westport for the first time since 1987.
There was still some work to be done. Cunningham, uttering prayers for divine help to Jesus Christ in between saving penalties, made another save, this time from Alan O’Donovan, and Danny Scahill and Darren Browne had put theirs away safely for United. Ultimately, it all came down to Kevin ‘Kipper’ Joyce. David Hoban couldn’t bring himself to look and Martin Geraghty crouched down behind the big centre forward, just about looking up to see what was going on. Captain since Joe Lawless got injured, Kipper ran up from the halfway line, placed the ball on the spot and side footed it into the net. Cue pitch invasion to beat all pitch invasions. A lovely form of bedlam broke out.
Westport were deserving winners. All the years of training at The Point helped them deal with the swirling wind that did its best to ruin the game but didn’t manage to. Athenry were good too, and they weren’t helped with injuries to Seamie Crowe and Cathal Fahy, but Westport had the upper hand, particularly from the second half onwards. There was a wonderful calmness and assurance about the way United played. No one dipped on the day. It probably came from years of playing in big games but it speaks volumes for their quality that they could produce on the big day. Again.
Gary Cunningham was the recipient of the man of the match award and it was hard to argue with given his gamechanging display, but this victory was based on the team ethic. And the ‘keeper was the first to say that after the game when he dedicated his award to the entire squad.
Yet, within that there were some superb individual displays. Martin Geraghty, Shaun Tagg, Danny Scahill, David Cameron, Alan Carroll and Vinny O’Malley were all outstanding.
And what about the red and black tribe that is the Westport United supporters? There cannot be a junior club anywhere
in this country that has a support base like Westport. Indeed, there are many League of Ireland clubs that struggle to attract such backing, and it did make a difference on Sunday.
Right from the moment when the Minister for Sport, Michael Ring, clenched his fist towards the stand where the hundreds and hundreds of covies were based, the fans were there right behind their team. It made a difference.
The first half was even enough. Both teams had their moments but there was nothing clear-cut in the way of chances. But in the second half, Westport were always on top. Danny Scahill and David Cameron started to dictate matters in the middle of the pitch and out wide Alan Carroll and Pat Fitzgerald had the Athenry defenders on the back foot – Carroll with his pace and Fitzgerald with his trickery.
From an attack initiated by the guile of Fitzgerald, David Cameron saw a shot blocked and from the follow-up, Vinny O’Malley went close with a header.
Fitzgerald set up Cameron a second time but his effort flew wide and another Fitzgerald cross went across the goal line
only to roll harmlessly wide.
Athenry threatened on the odd foray forward but United, with their imperious back five, held firm, restricting them to efforts from distance. All through, though, it had the look of a game that was either going to be decided by a single
goal or by penalties. The latter it was after an extra time where not a huge amount happened.
Pat Fitzgerald saw his penalty saved and United fans could have been forgiven for thinking ‘here we go again’. Athenry scored their first one but that was only the beginning of the story.
Gary Cunningham made probably the best save from a penalty this writer has ever seen and from there on in there was only ever going to be one winner. This time it was the turn of Westport United.
Athenry: J. grealish, S. Rabbitt, D. McDonagh, R. Kinneen, P. Byrne, G. Delaney, A. O’Donovan, S. Crowe, C. Fahy, C.. Cannon, G. Forde.
Subs used: R. Moran for Crowe (inj), D. cullen for Fahy, D. Carroll for Cannon.
Westport United: G. Cunningham, A. O’Malley, K. Joyce, M. Geraghty, S. Tagg, A. Carroll, D. Scahill, D. Cameron, P. Fitzgerald, V. O’Malley, D. Hoban.
Subs used: G. Mcloughlin for V. O’Malley (inj), D. Browne for Cameron (inj).
Ref: t. cormican (Roscommon).
Star rating: Gary Cunningham…stunning penalty stop.