Limerick are in the opposite boat to the one in which they sank three years ago as they must now come from behind in their SSE Airtricity League Relegation/Promotion playoff after falling to a 1-0 defeat by Finn Harps at Finn Park on Bank Holiday Monday, where they dominated for large spells.
A near full-strength Limerick started like the Premier Division team and skipper Shane Duggan whistled a strike just over in an early show of intent from the visitors, who had travelled up the night prior in preparation for this first leg.
The Shannonsiders could not have gone closer to getting a foothold in the tie, inside the quarter-hour, when the lively Connor Ellis raced onto the ball and rounded home stopper Peter Burke only to see his shot hit the post.
And, after dominating, the game took a twist against Tommy Barrett’s team ten minutes before half-time when Killian Brouder took down Jesse Devers, and up stepped Paddy McCourt to send Tommy Holland the wrong way and give Harps a precious lead.
Try as they might, Limerick could not get back on level terms, going closest through Ellis before the break and, at the death, Barry Maguire who forced a fine save from Burke, with focus now on a recovery mission on Friday.
For the game, Barrett had made eight changes to the team that played in Waterford 72 hours earlier with the only survivors being Ellis, Maguire and Kilian Cantwell – who were all subbed at the RSC.
The Shannonsiders were agonisingly close to a tenth-minute lead when Duggan went within inches of breaking the deadlock with a great effort that went just over the bar. Limerick should have been in front shortly after that when Shaun Kelly’s ball over the top was latched onto by Ellis who rounded Burke but the striker’s shot hit the upright and went wide.
The visitors were well on top but Devers was lively – hitting three early shots, one of which forced a save from Holland – and it was Devers who earned Harps their penalty when he was brought down by Brouder on 35 minutes. McCourt coolly converted.
Limerick could have been level before the break when, after more good pressure, the ball came at Ellis quickly in the box but he was unable to divert it either side of Burke who got in the way.
The second half would have a similar theme with Limerick going on the front-foot from the get-go. On 50 minutes, Brouder connected with a Shane Tracy free-kick to the back post but he failed to find the necessary accuracy.
Will Fitzgerald was then introduced and he almost combined with Ellis in attack approaching the hour-mark but Harps cleared any danger. Billy Dennehy soon went close with a rasping shot after being set up by Kelly.
With 20 minutes remaining, Holland was stretchered off with an ankle injury and replaced by Jack Brady, who would have little to do as Limerick continued their search for an equaliser. And it almost arrived with 60 seconds of the 90 left as Maguire sent a shot goalwards but Burke was equal to it to push it behind.
Now Limerick, who were relegated in 2015 having led the tie 1-0 after the first leg, must do what Harps did to them back then and come from behind to secure a place in the 2019 Premier Division. The second leg takes place at the Markets Field this Friday – kick-off is 7.45pm.
Limerick FC would like to thank Séamus and his staff at the Bay View Hotel in Killybegs for the hospitality shown in looking after our first-team squad during our stay in Donegal.
Limerick FC would also like to thank Saint Catherine’s FC – the very first club of our defender Shaun Kelly – for the kind use of their facilities and their hospitality in helping us to prepare for the game at Finn Park.
Finn Harps: Peter Burke, Ciaran Coll, Jacob Borg, Keith Cowan ©, Gareth Harkin, Jesse Devers (Niall Logue 89), Mikey Place, Paddy McCourt (Oluwantunmise Sobowale 77), Nathan Boyle (John O’Flynn 90+7), Sam Todd, John Kavanagh.
Unused Subs: Jamie Bell (GK), Aidan Friel, Liam Walsh, Niall McGinley.
Limerick: Tommy Holland (Jack Brady 71), Shaun Kelly, Kilian Cantwell, Killian Brouder, Shane Tracy, Cían Coleman, Shane Duggan ©, Barry Maguire, Karl O’Sullivan (Will Fitzgerald 54), Billy Dennehy, Connor Ellis (Danny Morrissey 80).
Unused Subs: Tomás O’Connor, Darren Murphy, Aaron Fitzgerald, Colman Kennedy.
Referee: Robert Harvey. Attendance: 2,379.