Some brilliant passing football and some inspired goalkeeping were the key factors as Monaghan United maintained their promotion push with a third successive Airtricity League victory and an eighth win on the trot against Waterford United.
United bounced back superbly from conceding in the first minute with a confident attacking display for the remainder of the half and they could well have been more than 2-1 ahead at the break. But immediately after the interval United were indebted to Gabriel Sava as the super saver produced a veritable exhibition of shot-stopping as the visitors responded – but supersub Michael Isichei’s late header finally clinched the victory for Roddy Collins’s side.
United close to within seven points of leaders Shelbourne and remain one point behind second-placed Cork City and they move two clear of Limerick City, who also have one more match played.
United’s excellent evening got off to the worst possible start when Waterford – buoyant after their 5-1 win over Athlone Town last week – caught United cold. Adam McSherry got the benefit of a marginal offside call and coolly shot low past Sava after barely 30 seconds.
A more physically imposing Blues side – wearing red though on this occasion – continued to ruffle the Mons defence in the early exchanges but gradually United imposed their tempo and precise passing style on the game. With Keith Quinn excelling in the centre and Jordan Keegan stretching the play with some excellent wing work, United produced some of their finest football of season for a 30-minute period from the 15th minute until half time.
A Ryan Brennan shot and close range headed effort by Declan O’Brien were early testers for the Waterford defence, as United passed and probed at will although some fine moves faltered in the final pass. They finally pulled level after 28 minutes when Keegan’s precise diagonal pass over the top picked out the run of Sean Brennan – at the centre of most of United’s best efforts – and the playmaker showed equanimity and efficiency in equal measure as he almost nonchalantly waited for the ball to drop over his shoulder and then executed a perfect lob-volley over the exposed Kevin Burns and into the net.
Keith Quinn – now looking completely at home in the Monaghan engine room – came close to a lead goal for the home side two minutes later with a fierce low drive that flew just wide. But United were ahead after 38 minutes. Quinn and Sean Brennan both had the Waterford defence at full stretch with probing runs and a rushed clearance fell perfectly for the Mons to sweep the ball to the unattended Keegan on the right of the penalty area and the youngster smashed home powerfully from close range.
The home side were rampant at this stage and some fine approach play from Reilly was matched by a perfectly weighted through ball for O’Brien but the United sharpshooter was denied by a smart save from Burns.
It was his opposite number Sava who shone in the early stage of the second half as Waterford reconvened with added purpose. The powerfully McSherry seemed set to reprise his early first half strike after good movement in the box but his ferocious shot from a tight angle was brilliantly touched over by Sava at point-blank range for a simple stunning stop. More was to follow as he saved twice from David Breen, the first an acrobatic reflex effort, and then he produced a brave double stop to deny Seamus Long after 54 minutes.
Monaghan were struggling to find their first-half fluidity but one break after 56 minutes almost sealed the game when Burns misjudged John Reilly’s cross and he could only touch it onto his own crossbar. Sava was back in the action after 59 minutes when he pulled off a more routine stop to block Kevin Murray’s free header from a corner. United spurned a chance of their own minutes later but O’Brien shot weakly when he might have passed to Sean Brennan ahead. After 63 minutes United allowed Breen far too much time 30 metres from goal and his fine looping shot was brilliantly tipped over the bar by the diving Sava.
United introduced new signing Willo McDonagh for his debut after 66 minutes and his muscular presence in the midfield helped United to regain a foothold in the game. Roddy Collins’ third substitution after 81 minutes, Michael Isichei, proved even more inspired. Two minutes after coming in, he rose highest to reach Sean Brennan’s free kick and he sent a glancing header past Burns. The goal prompted a Jose Mourinho Porto v Manchester United style race down the touchline from his delighted manager and sent Gortakeegan into rapture.
There was still time for Sava to pull off one final save, the final act in a pulsating game that was a great advert for the Airtricity League First Division. United now focus on cup action as they travel west to take on cup holders Sligo Rovers on Saturday next.
Monaghan United: Gabriel Sava; John Reilly, Aidan Collins, Alan Byrne, Shane Grimes; Keith Quinn (Jason Marks 75), Eric Foley, Ryan Brennan (Willo McDonagh 66), Jordan Keegan (Michael Isichei 81); Declan O’Brien, Sean Brennan.
Subs not used: Rod Collins, Phillip Byrne, Jake Rossiter, David Byrne.
Waterford United: Burns; Long, Murray, Browne, Carey; Breen, Dunphy, Walsh (Balevicius 88), McSherry (Nolan 75); Keane (Wilson 32), Murphy.
Subs not used: Heslip, Cooley, Coad, Barron.
Referee: D Coombes (Dublin)