Carew Park sit atop the LDL Premier Division after completing a double over title rivals Pike Rovers.
Carew were fortunate to survive an early onslaught from Mick Sheil’s FAI Junior Cup finalists, who opted not to risk the likes of Pa Mullins, Shane Walsh and Cian Collins from the start. Collins’ replacement, Gary Higgins, linked well with strike partner Colin Daly, and it was his 10th minute reverse pass that teed up Daly to curl the ball off the face of Jamie Stewart’s crossbar.
Minutes later, a deflected Steven McGann strike bobbled into the area to Daly, who forced a strong parry from Stewart from an acute angle. Daly duly returned the ball into the six-yard box, where the unmarked Higgins – with the goal at his mercy – could only direct the ball straight at Stewart.
Carew eventually gained a foothold in the game and took an unlikely lead midway through the half. Tommy Culhane’s long pass to Kieran Hanlon was headed back to Jonathan Grant, who had slipped between the Pike defence and midfield unnoticed. Mark McGrath ran onto Grant’s resulting through ball, rounded Gary Neville, only to be pulled back by Wayne Colbert. Colbert was perhaps lucky to only see yellow before Gary Griffin dispatched the ensuing spot kick into the centre of Neville’s goal.
Carew continued to build momentum as the half wore on, with Richie Mullins repelling Pike’s constant right-wing forays and Gary Griffin again performing well in the spoiler role in front of the Carew defence. Grant popped up unmarked between the lines again shortly before half-time, only to see McGrath fail to pull the trigger on his through ball under pressure from Wayne O’Donovan.
While the first half was pretty even on the balance of play, the second saw Pike utterly dominant. The Hoops continued to funnel the ball down the right flank, but chance-creation was scant – even after the early introduction of Collins, who added further energy to Pike’s search for an equaliser.
Carew’s defence, which had managed a stunning eight clean sheets in their last 12 league outings, remained resolute and only conceded two half-chances in the opening half hour. Both stemmed from right-wing crosses, with Paddy O’Malley blazing over at the back post in the opening minutes and McGann fluffing an attempted volley when unmarked on the penalty spot.
Only a late, late switch to 3-4-1-2 on the part of Sheil really bamboozled Carew. Dave Ryan was introduced to the fray in a right wing-back role and he immediately took advantage of the absence of any Carew winger to mark him to create two glorious chances for Higgins.
The first, five minutes from time, saw Ryan play Higgins in on the left of the area, only for Stewart to tip over the Pike striker’s strong left-footed strike with a marvelous acrobatic stop. The second, three minutes from time, saw the unmarked Ryan head a cross-field ball back across goal at the back post. The ball found Higgins free in the six-yard box, as he had been in the 10th minute, but the striker couldn’t keep his header down and it clipped the top of the bar.
Pike endured further agony in the bafflingly long seven-plus minute period of injury time, when former Carew player Connery was dismissed for dissent; his second yellow card, after being cautioned for simulation in the opening minutes. Pike must now face into the next match of their league run-in bereft of both starting wingers, as Eoin Hanrahan’s ankle injury has also ruled him out for the remainder of the season.
Carew’s league fate remains in their own hands after this victory, ahead of two tough-looking final games at home to Janesboro and away to Geraldines. Although they rode their luck here, with Pike’s Higgins missing two very presentable chances, another clean sheet in a season full of them shows the value of a functional defensive unit at this level. Despite creating precious little in both games, they have defeated Pike twice in the league this season; both by a 1-0 margin, courtesy of a penalty kick. Other sides, with more attacking talent to choose from on paper, may take a lesson from their success.
Pike have been equally well organised this season and, in truth, were unfortunate today. Having failed to break down Carew’s narrow 4-3-1-2 in Crossagalla, they went with two strikers here and may have won the day, were it not for poor finishing. They will regret that neither Mullins nor McGann picked up Grant in the lead-up to the penalty award, as indeed they may regret not starting with the Sheriff-esque shape that almost secured them a point at the death. The decision to omit key players ahead of that FAI final next week may also be one that looks ill-judged in hindsight. Time will tell.
Griffin (pen) 22′