Mikey Drennan showed all his League of Ireland class to complete a second-half counter-attack and decide this close-fought FAI Junior Cup quarter-final in Evergreen FC’s favour.
Fielded in the number 10 position, Drennan and striker Ben Hickey led Packie Holden’s high-press from the off, designed to disrupt Kilmallock’s usual short-passing rhythm.
That continual pressure, combined with an extremely tight Kells Road astroturf pitch, turned the first 25 minutes of the game into a scrappy mess of few chances. Only Barry Sheedy, fielded again in central midfield, briefly enlivened matters with a stinging left-footed drive that player-manager Holden dived dramatically to his left to repel.
Such a narrow surface meant that both sides struggled to get their widemen involved in proceedings. The hosts solved this problem somewhat, midway through the half, by asking Chris Whearty and Conor English to swap sides.
Positioned on the right-flank for the last twenty minutes of the first-half, the infield dribbling of the left-footed Whearty posed a problem for Kilmallock.
Visiting left-back Niall Burchill earned his way into the referee’s notebook for arresting one such run, and Hickey almost profited from another — were it not for the assistant referee catching him offside in pursuit of Whearty’s resultant through-ball.
English, scorer of the free-kick insurance goal against Willow Park in the last 16, also had his moments on the left, dribbling past two Kilmallock players in the 41st minute, before delivering a disappointingly weak penalty-box strike straight into Robbie Egan’s gloves.
Escaping briefly from an aerial clash-of-the-titans with Niall Hanley, Evergreen central midfielder Sean Barcoe also got in on the chance-creation action, drifting wide-right to fashion a shooting chance for Drennan with his resultant cross.
Fortunately for Derek McCarthy’s side, Benni Burke put his body on the line to block the former Shamrock Rovers man’s powerful effort.
Reeling from a bruising and frustrating first-half, but still very much in the tie, the Limerick side came out of the traps furiously in the second-half. Paul Doona, goalscorer in the previous round away to Donnycarney, kicked off a 15-minute purple patch by slamming a strike off the bottom of Holden’s crossbar from range.
Suddenly, Kilmallock’s peripheral flankers were getting in on the act too. Killian Hayes was released down the left by a wonderful volleyed Sheedy diagonal, only to be foiled by imperious centre-back Niall Andrews on the cover.
Jack Barry too began to threaten on the opposite side, spinning Robbie Quane and forcing Dylan Whearty to deflect his strike wide.
Alas for the visitors, this period of dominance ultimately played into Evergreen’s hands. Promoted to the frontline upon Hickey’s injury-enforced departure, Drennan came up trumps just after the hour-mark to complete a devastatingly simple counter-attack.
Winning the ball deep in his own half, Barcoe looked up and immediately played an incredibly accurate through-ball that bisected Kilmallock centre-backs Burke and Jason Heffernan, leaving Drennan one-on-one with Egan.
The visiting goalkeeper appeared to keep out the resultant finish, but the loose ball looped over his head nonetheless, and continued on its wind-assisted goalbound path.
Burke, who may have kept pace with Drennan were it not for reaggravating a pre-existing calf injury, departed soon after that body-blow, to be replaced by returning striker Eoin Burchill — who bagged two goals on his Premier Division debut away to Regional United last Sunday.
Although his arrival heralded a big reorganisation in the Kilmallock ranks — with Doona moving to the right of midfield, Barry to right-back, and fellow substitute Anthony Barrett to centre-back — Burchill’s impact was immediate and profound, offering his side a much-needed direct outlet.
Having survived another similar Barcoe-Drennan break, that forced a strong save from Egan at his near post, Kilmallock commenced a ten-minute barrage of the Evergreen goal, from which they should have forced extra-time.
McCarthy introduced another direct option up top in Paudie Sheedy, moving to a back-three in the process, and further piling the pressure on an ever more deep-lying home back-line.
Two clear-cut chances stemmed from this siege in the final three minutes, both falling to Burchill. The first resulted from a Doona through-ball, and the second saw Paudie Sheedy rescue a back-post corner-kick with a clever hooked return. Had Burchill more game-time under his belt, after recovering from such a catastrophic cruciate ligament injury, the striker surely would have hit the target with one.
Instead, it is Holden’s side who advance to a semi-final away to Roscommon’s Boyle Celtic, who overcame Carrick United via the lottery of a penalty shootout. Kilmallock, meanwhile, must make do with the scant consolation prize of a moral victory. Reaching the quarter-finals stage is no mean feat for a newly-promoted side.
Man of the Match