The great escape is still on. Having spent 203 days in the 12th-placed wilderness, Limerick have finally managed to scale the giddying heights of eleventh – right when it mattered most.
The Shannonsiders needed to win at the Showgrounds tonight and hope that Drogheda failed to do so in Tallaght, in order to leapfrog their survival rivals and secure – at the very least – a one-week relegation reprieve. The cards fell Limerick’s way at both venues in the end. But they didn’t exactly play their hand very smartly at times.
The evening began very promisingly indeed for the visitors, as they went two goals ahead inside the first half-hour. In the absence of regular number ten, Lee J Lynch, Martin Russell was widely tipped to field a 4-4-2 tonight – as he had done during the second-half of the Rovers clash last Friday night.
Instead, mindful perhaps of how that switch ceded control of the middle of the park to Rovers, Russell opted for a 4-1-4-1 shape, with Dean Clarke and Ian Turner providing the width either side of target man, Vinny Faherty.
Limerick focused much of their play down the right through Clarke in the early going. It was the Limerick winger’s cross from the byline that Raffaele Cretaro turned behind for the first of two fruitful Limerick corners.
A short corner routine – straight off the training ground – followed, that saw Shane Duggan arrive late to power home from outside the area. Duggan was afforded the freedom to do so by the, shall we say, positive decision of Sligo boss, Micky Adams, to leave three players forward.
The second of those fruitful corners, saw Sligo centre-back, Alan Keane, lose possession in his own area – bizarrely opting to attempt a nutmeg rather than clear his lines. Shane Tracy collected the ball and rattled Richard Brush’s crossbar from range. Midfielder, Paul O’Conor, stepped up to convert the second of two headed rebound attempts.
Sandwiched between those two Limerick goals was a missed penalty from Sligo’s Dinny Corcoran. Corcoran himself had won the spot-kick for his side, running into the chasm that Limerick centre-back, Patrick Kanyuka, had left between himself and his right-full, Shaun Kelly.
Desperate to make up the distance between himself and the Sligo striker, Kanyuka then clumsily bundled Corcoran over in the box. The resulting penalty was weak and inadequately directed towards the corner. Goalkeeper, Freddy Hall, saved and held comfortably.
Although Limerick looked dangerous on the break – with Faherty slotting just wide of the far-post from the corner of the area a particularly close call for Sligo – their slipshod attempts at defending a lead were making Sligo look far more threatening.
Soon after the second goal, a cheap concession of possession from Paul O’Conor in the middle of the park led to a chance for Jennison Myrie-Williams. The English winger, who also played for Adams at Port Vale and Tranmere Rovers, beat Shaun Kelly with a lovely piece of skill, before dragging his resulting effort wide of the far post.
Five minutes from the break, Limerick dropped another clanger. Centre-back, Robbie Williams, who was culpable for the first Rovers goal last week, misjudged an attempted header, allowing Corcoran in. The Sligo striker squared it to Estonian number ten, Sander Puri, who took advantage of the absence of Kanyuka on the cover to test Freddy Hall.
Eventually, in first-half injury time, Sligo would finally punish the league’s worst defence. Puri went one better – popping up at the back post to convert Keith Ward’s cross from the left. Ward had won a battle against O’Conor in the middle of the park before riding the pathetic attempt at a challenge from the abject Kanyuka.
The news from elsewhere wasn’t good for the Limerick players either, as they filed into the dressing-room at half-time. Drogheda were two-one up in Tallaght. But, within ten minutes of the restart, they would have been lifted by two cheers from the travelling Limerick support in quick succession. One for the award of a Rovers penalty. One for Danny North’s conversion. It was back on.
And minutes later, those same travelling fans were in ecstasy again. Captain, Shane Duggan, produced a great first touch on the left flank to control Sean Russell’s over-hit cross from the opposite side. Duggan followed that up with a wonderful outswinging cross – flicked on by Dean Clarke – that Vinny Faherty converted at the back post. Surely Limerick had done their bit now.
Unfortunately, there was still the small matter of that kamikaze defence. Right on the hour-mark, Kanyuka summed up his night by planting an awful attempted clearing header right at the feet of David Cawley. Luckily for the Congolese – and his side – the Sligo midfielder’s resulting effort flew wide of Hall’s goal.
Sligo right-back, Raffaele Cretaro, was honoured before this evening’s game, in recognition of recently turning out for his 500th appearance for the Bit O’Red. That was about as good as it got for Cretaro tonight, who found himself tormented by Ian Turner throughout the contest. Cretaro picked up a yellow card for a foul on the Limerick winger in the first half, and was extremely lucky not to pick up a second for an unpunished foul on the same player – as he descended upon the Sligo goal.
The game then entered a prolonged lull up until the final five minutes of normal time. Limerick looked comfortable – buoyed by the news that Rovers were ahead against Drogheda. Comfortable that is until Sligo added the presence of centre-back Gavin Peers to their front-line and began raining in crosses on Limerick’s panicked rearguard.
With four to go, a cross from the left led to Paul O’Conor being forced to clear another Cawley effort off the line – after another poor clearing header from Robbie Williams.
Williams himself came to the rescue a minute later, with a vital headed intervention on the line to cut out Peers’ header and prevent substitute Antony Elding from nodding in at the back post.
Eventually, in injury-time, the Sligo pressure told. A Cretaro cross from deep on the right-flank was headed in at the back post by teenage substitute Ruairi Keating – rising above Shaun Kelly to bag his first goal for the club. Oh dear.
And moments later, right in the dying seconds of added time, there was almost a re-run. This time, Myrie-Williams was the provider from deep on the right. Danny Ledwith was the man at the back post. He shot wide, with the goal at his mercy. You could almost hear the collective exhalation of breath from the travelling Limerick support.
That was it. Despite the best efforts of their woeful defence, Limerick had earned themselves the lifeline of two games against Finn Harps to save their Airtricity Premier League status. And they’ve earned it by finally lifting themselves off the bottom of the table in a game that was a microcosm of their season. Limerick were excellent at times going forward here, through the dual wide threats of Turner and Clarke and the assured midfield presence of captain Shane Duggan. There’s a reason why they are the 6th highest scorers in the division, despite their lowly final league placing.
But there’s a reason why they’ve conceded 73 goals too – a whopping twelve more than nearest defensive wooden spoon rivals, Galway United. Patrick Kanyuka was appalling tonight, demonstrating no understanding whatsoever of the positional relationship required between he and his full-backs, or he and his almost-as-poor partner, Robbie Williams. Let’s hope the attacking flares continue to burn next Monday and Friday nights. Limerick will probably need them.