Celtic crack as Athenry advance
Castlebar Celtic 1
Keogh 42, Mernagh 48, Costello 87
THIS one wasn’t on the cards. Castlebar Celtic went into the biggest game in the club’s history as short priced favourites. Athenry winning was a big shock in itself (4/1 that morning with Ladbrokes) but winning in the manner that they did was completely mindblowing.
They made Celtic, a team who hadn’t lost in the 29 games previous to this, look like a group who had just met for the first time on the morning of the match. Of course, Athenry aren’t completely responsible for that, Celtic must take a fair share of the blame for their performance but Athenry were absolutely superb.
The occasion didn’t deter the Galway side; in fact it seemed to spur them on even more. From the outset Athenry had Celtic in trouble. Front duo Johnny Mernagh and Cathal Fahy had pace aplenty to stretch Celtic across the full width of the vast Milebush sod and wingers Paddy Quinn and the excellent Ollie Keogh accentuated this. Jamie O’Driscoll in middle linked everything together and Celtic were overwhelmed.
The Castlebar side, with so many talented players in their squad, couldn’t string two passes together, kicks were skewed over the sideline under no pressure, players were stuck to the spot and Celtic offered practically nothing going forward. They were everything that Athenry weren’t.
Consider this for a startling statistic. Celtic had only four efforts on target for the entire game. One was Barry O’Dwyer’s goal after four minutes and the other three came in the final five minutes. Eighty one minutes without a shot on goal is probably the best way to sum up Celtic’s failings. But yet, and this was the amazing thing about this game, Celtic could have got something out of it.
With five minutes to go somehow Athenry were only 2-1 in front and, literally out of nowhere, Celtic were handed a lifeline. When Russell Gibbons beat Athenry goalkeeper Adrian Cronin in the air to a through ball from Gavin Dykes, all of Milebush Park held its breath.
Stevie Ryan showed the greatest determination and conviction to get his head on the hanging ball and direct it goalwards. It was heading into the roof of the net only for Athenry’s Stephen Rabbitte to stop it with his hand.
A penalty was the obvious decision and with it an automatic red for Rabbitte. However, his decision to raise his hand to the ball was soon vindicated.
Celtic goalkeeper Ciarán Kelly, who had converted a hat-trick of penalties in an earlier round against Carew Park, strode upfield to take the pressure kick.
His connection was true as was the direction but Cronin leapt to his left to keep the ball out of the corner of the net. It is almost a given that someone who misses a penalty is criticised but in this case all the credit must go to Cronin.
And yet still Celtic weren’t gone. One minute later Chris Kelly bore in on goal, squared across Cronin to Sean McHale who thought he had more time than he actually did have to slot home from three yards. His effort was brilliantly blocked by substitute Jonathan Linnane.
One minute later Athenry substitute Brian Costello had the ball in the Celtic net (even if he and Jamie O’Driscoll had been yards offside) and it was game over.
So despite playing poorly Celtic could – and should – have brought the game to extra-time where, with an extra man, they would have been favourites.
Instead they will be left with a plethora of regrets after falling short at the penultimate hurdle. They will be sore that they couldn’t equalise late on but will be sorer still at the manner of their performance. But just why were Castlebar Celtic so bad?
This was a team who had forged a reputation as being very hard to beat but for most of Sunday’s game it was a case of by how much, and not if, Athenry would triumph. The occasion clearly got to a lot of players and of the Celtic team that started only Ciarán Kelly and Dykes himself looked as if they were calm.
Athenry were the opposite. They treated this game as if they were in bonus territory and they clearly devised a plan to stretch the Celtic back four right across the pitch. Strikers Mernagh and Fahy would regularly drop deep or wide and were a nightmare to track.
Mernagh, in particular, looked like someone who will return to the eircom League sooner rather than later and with less than ninety seconds on the clock he turned inside Pat Neary to force a fine save out of Kelly.
Celtic did take the lead with their first attack. Sean McHale was fouled forty yards out and Gavin Dykes’ superbly weighted free-kick had the perfect even trajectory that puts defenders on the back foot. It was Barry O’Dwyer who managed to sneak in ahead of goalkeeper Adrian Cronin to head to the empty net.
Soon Celtic would have to lose Joey Maloney to injury with Dara Ainsworth coming on but it was further infield where Celtic were struggling. None of their central midfield trio of Chris Kelly, Fintan McHale and Stevie Ryan could get into the game as Athenry continued to dominate.
The result was the Celtic area was peppered with probing balls but too often no Athenry player could get on the end of them while Ciarán Kelly was rock solid with all that came his way.
However, in the 42nd minute, he could do little to prevent Athenry equalising. Ollie Keogh took possession on the right hand apex of the area after Dykes had dispossessed Mernagh. He got past Kieran Hopkins but his cross cum shot from a tight angle appeared to nick the Celtic full-back and fly into the roof of the net.
In an effort to limit Athenry’s progress on the wings Dykes brought on James Minogue at left-back at the break, moving Kieran Hopkins to right back for Pat Neary. However, three minutes into the second half, and Celtic were behind.
From a Celtic throw-in Kieran Hopkins attempted to clear upfield under pressure but Cathal Fahy managed to block and the ball fell perfectly past Barry O’Dwyer to put Mernagh in.
Ciarán Kelly had come off his line to offer an option for the throw-in seconds earlier and was out of position. That left Mernagh with the simple task of sliding the ball into the centre of the net.
There was tension aplenty but little in the way of drama over the next half an hour. Ollie Keogh was perhaps lucky to remain on the field after he shoulder charged Stevie Ryan to the ground and that little cameo seemed to rattle Athenry and get Celtic moving.
The penalty incident would soon follow but the day of disappointment would continue for Celtic.
Ciaran Kelly; P Neary, G Dykes, B O’Dwyer, K Hopkins; G Burke, S Ryan, F McHale, Chris Kelly, J Maloney; S McHale. Subs: D Ainsworth for Maloney (inj. 6mins); J Minogue for Neary (h/t); R Gibbons for F McHale (67mins).
A Cronin; S Rabbitte, E Byrne, R Kinneen, M Quinn; O Keogh, J Keane, J O’Driscoll, P Quinn; J Mernagh, C Fahy. Subs: B Costello for Mernagh (75mins); J Linnane for Keogh (81mins).
Referee: Eoin Brennan (Roscommon).