Leinster Senior Cup
Willow Park 0
Ayrfield United 0
Ayrfield win 4-3 on penalties
GOALKEEPER Stephen Whelan saved twice in the penalty shoot-out as Ayrfield United advanced to the third round of the Leinster Senior Cup with victory over Willow Park in Athlone.
Conor Young netted the winning spot-kick after Alex Barry’s spectacular free-kick in extra time had been cancelled out by a Stephen Mullen wonderstrike at the death.
It was Whelan who would have the biggest say, however, stopping Willow Park twice from 12 yards as well as seeing two more saves chalked off for stepping off his line.
Luckless Willow had lost on penalties to Inchicore Athletic in the Lummy O’Reilly Cup two days earlier, but it was Ayrfield’s first game in almost a month.
The rustiness showed with neither side creating much of note for the majority of the 90 minutes, until Ayrfield winger Keith McCormack was twice denied late on.
Whelan was forced into a terrific stop himself at the death, but it was in the final ten minutes of extra time that the game burst to life.
Barry won a free kick on the edge of the box and curled a wonderful strike up and over the wall and into the top corner past a helpless goalkeeper.
Manager Ciaran McLoughlin, though unofficially retired, had to sub himself on due to injuries and had a perfect view of Mullen’s stunning volley with two minutes remaining.
Whelan was beaten all ends up but he wasn’t to be denied in the shootout, Alan Connors, Reece Higgins and Dillyn Byrne all scored before Young set up a third round tie with Kilkenny’s Evergreen.
“In your first game back after Christmas, lads are going to be blowing a bit and I don’t think the pitch was great,” says McLoughlin.
“I don’t think we played particularly well but we grinded out a result. For the first one after Christmas, the main thing was making sure we got into the hat for the next round.
“I’ve been there before where a team scores in the last minute of extra time and they’ve got their tails up and you’d think there’ll be only one winner but we kept positive.”
It’s been a season of change for Ayrfield as they lost their keeper, both full-backs and their two top scorers in the summer, and Whelan was among nine new signings in the off-season.
The arrival of defender Ryan Scully from top-tier Killester Donnycarney is a boost ahead of a must-win game against promotion rivals Ardmore Rovers next week.
“We lost the nucleus of our team. We knew we had to rejig and get players in. We got nine new players in. It hasn’t worked out as planned to get them all together with injuries.
“It’s been really stop-start. We’ve played 14 games and we couldn’t name the same starting 11 once all season.”