It wasn’t to be for Galway United, as their confident performance in the First Division Play-Off Final went unrewarded against a clinical Waterford FC outfit at Market’s Field in Limerick.
United came into the tie full of confidence following a 5-2 aggregate victory against Longford Town in the playoff semi-finals. However, Waterford, who were fresh off the back of a 7-4 aggregate victory over Treaty United in the other tie, were far more clinical on the night and made United pay for their profligacy in front of goal.
United started on an extremely positive note, with Stephen Walsh breathing down the Waterford defender’s necks as he initiated a spell of unrelenting pressure. John Caulfield’s side were riled up, and a fifth-minute free kick had the makings of a fairy-tale start for United. However, Ronan Manning’s dead ball effort smashed into the wall.
Just three minutes later, in what seemed to be Waterford’s first spell of possession, The Blues found themselves in a very similar position. Wassim Aouachria was fouled 30 yards out, and Phoenix Patterson and Junior Quitirna stood over the dead ball menacingly.
It was Junior who struck it, after Patterson’s deft touch offered him a more appealing angle. He was soon thanking the wet conditions of Market’s Field, as the ball slipped out of Conor Kearns’ grasp and nestled into the bottom corner.
Following the opener, this battle showed no signs of slowing down, with Waterford creating a few chances for themselves. Pinball in the United penalty area created havoc, but amid the chaos United somehow managed to clear.
The Tribesmen were on the hunt for an equaliser and came close just a minute later. David Hurley found himself in a crossing position on the right wing and fizzed the ball across the face of the goal. Walsh and Ed McCarthy tried in vain to get a toe on the end of it, but neither could connect on the stretch.
Both teams enjoyed a breather following a stoppage just before the half-hour mark. A structural issue in the away stand saw Gardaí and stewards escorting Waterford fans to safety.
Quick-witted chants between fans created a great atmosphere, as the entire main stand in Limerick played host to scenes that have been seen at Eamonn Deacy Park all season.
United were now determined to fight back and soon found a target man to aim for, as Rob Manley replaced Hurley, who was forced off through injury. Once again, Waterford found themselves trapped in their own penalty area but somehow survived.
Waterford finally cleared the ball six minutes into additional time, and some strong play by Aouachria helped him burst through on goal before finishing low past Kearns against the run of play to make it 2-0 to The Blues.
The restart had little impact on the flow of the game, as United continued their direct approach into the second half. Waterford found themselves with more counter-attacking opportunities as Galway searched for any hint of a comeback.
United thought their prayers were answered in the 51st minute when James Finnerty climbed highest to head Conor McCormack’s cross goal bound, but it crashed against the woodwork.
A flurry of United corners was followed by a chance for substitute Mikie Rowe in the 77th minute. With some good footwork, he found himself with a yard of space to unleash a shot, but it was blocked once again by a sturdy Waterford defence. United maintained their attack, and Manning cut through the Waterford backline with some impressive skill.
In a desperate attempt to hold onto their lead, Manning was taken down inside the box by Waterford’s defence. It was now or never for United, and for the first time all night, the stadium was deafeningly silent. Walsh stepped up to take, and he struck it pure, but he was met with a fantastic save by Paul Martin, who threw himself to his right to deny United.
Waterford knew they were fortunate to have maintained their two-goal advantage, and when Patterson and Quitirna attacked two minutes later, they made no mistake. Patterson drove at the Galway defence before slotting in Quitirna, who fired emphatically past Kearns.
United and their supporters kept pushing until the very end, but with a three-goal deficit and only ten minutes to go, a comeback was almost impossible.
It was just not Galway United’s night, while Waterford booked their ticket to the Premier Division Promotion/Relegation Play-off.