So near and yet so far proved to be the story of the day for Manor Rangers on Saturday last as they exited the SFAI Skechers U15 National Cup at the last 16 stage at the hands of Bohemian FC.
Having eliminated Cabinteely in the previous round, hopes were high that Manor could claim another scalp and Roger Connolly’s charges showed no fear as they took the game to their opponents during the opening exchanges at IT Sligo.
The concession of a late goal to force extra-time, a wonderful save to deny Eanna Clancy from the penalty spot and a late winner for Bohs illustrate how competitive the Leitrim outfit were but it does not come close to telling the story of an absorbing contest.
The Manor back four was brilliantly organised, with Matthew Connolly and James Clinton to the fore with some excellent defending while goalkeeper Ben Gavin was also in top form, as illustrated by a wonderful double save in the second half to deny .
Manor’s workrate and commitment to the cause created all manner of problems for Bohs. Eanna Clancy’s trickery in midfield, Patrick Montgomery’s creativity and Diarmuid Giblin’s workrate meant that while Bohs may have enjoyed the majority of possession, Manor were also a threat when rampaging forward.
Manor got off to the best possible start when they broke the deadlock with barely seven minutes on the clock. Some tenacious tackling in midfield resulted in the ball being played wide to Diarmuid Giblin who showed great speed and strength to shrug off the attention of a defender before squaring the ball to Patrick Montgomery who applied a cool finish from seven yards.
Many of the large crowd who made the journey from Manorhamilton to Sligo would have done so in hope rather than anticipation but after the goal went in, the levels of belief on the pitch and among those outside the perimeter grew significantly.
Bohs were struggling to impose themselves on the game as they found it difficult to find time and space to develop the passing style they evidently prefer and the Dubliners were looked decidedly unsure whenever they had to contend with a long ball as the pace and perseverance of the Manor players created all manner of problems.
When afforded space in midfield Bohs showed how dangerous they can be.
An excellent first touch followed by a brilliantly disguised through-ball from Danny Omofokpia looked to have the Manor defence in real trouble for the first time in the afternoon but keeper Ben Gavin read the danger expertly, racing from his line to dive at the feet of Tommy Buchanan to avert the danger.
The sounding of the half-time whistle gave the Manor players an opportunity to re-focus and catch a breather while Bohs used the opportunity to introduce some fresh legs to proceedings.
With no limit to the amount of substitutions permitted, the strength of the Bohemian bench would ultimately prove decisive as their ability to freshen up their team when needed was a luxury Manor Rangers did not have.
The game resumed with the words of advice from their management team fresh in their ears and Bohs looked to have found a new sense of composure. Rather than looking to go long immediately they were prepared to pass the ball short, maintain possession and patiently try to create openings.
Despite the fluidity of the Bohs play, Manor remained committed to the task at the hand. While the workrate of all the players was terrific, the concentration levels displayed by the back four were particularly impressive.
Whether making headed clearances, executing a last ditch tackle or clearing the ball to safety, the Manor defence was heroic throughout.
As the game progressed, the feeling was that a second Manor goal would be enough for them to advance to the quarter finals but with just seven minutes remaining Bohs replied with the equaliser their possession had merited.
That goal meant the sides would be forced into extra-time and with Bohs still able to introduce fresh legs from the bench, it was increasingly difficult to see how Manor could emerge victorious.
In the early stages of extra-time Manor were presented with a perfect opportunity to regain the lead after Diarmuid Giblin did brilliantly to race clear of the Bohs defence before being fouled in the box. A penalty was signalled and another famous Manor Rangers victory was suddenly a possibility once more.
Eanna Clancy, who had an excellent game in midfield, took responsibility for the penalty but he was to be denied by an outstanding save from the Bohs goalkeeper Ross Leonard.
While it was a huge moment in the game, no blame could be attached to Clancy who struck his penalty firmly towards the corner of the goal but he was denied by a top class, full-length save.
A further blow was to follow for Manor as a devastating Bohs counter-attack saw them catch the Manor defence flat-footed for the first time all afternoon and Jimmy Cripps was on hand to score after a fine team move.
Manor Rangers gave their all in the second period of extra-time as they sought to take the game to penalties but Bohs managed the rest of the game expertly as they deservedly clinched their place in the last eight.
Ultimately there can be few complaints about the result but Manor Rangers more than played their part in what was an excellent contest and they will be hoping they can get back to winning ways when they participate in the Connacht Final in the coming weeks.
Manor Rangers: Ben Gavin, Tarach Ó Snodaigh, Stephen Burke, Matthew Connolly, James Clinton, Cathal O'Connell, Patrick Montgomery, Eanna Clancy, Diarmuid Giblin, Gabriel Gilbride, Jamie Cawley. Subs: Alan Kavanagh, Gearóid O'Hagan, Alex Dunne, Leigh Dalton, Tom Hughes, Shaun Sheridan.
Bohemians FC: Ross Leonard, Andre Otto, Fursey Blake, Andrew Zemantis, Colm Keane, Cian Woodlock, Tommy Buchanan, Sam Hayden, Danny Omofokpia, Shane Maguire, Kieron Curley. Subs: Troy O'Brien, Michael Meehan, Godfrey Sanka, Jimmy Cripps, Andy Maguire, Raphael Johnson.