Midfield tussle between Waterford United's Paul McCarthy and Sporting Fingal's Philip Byrne. photo: Jim O'Sullivan

Waterford United 1; Sporting Fingal 1

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In what turned out to be an extremely tough game, Waterford United looked certain to open their campaign with a home win at the RSC on Saturday night last when Gary Dunphy broke the deadlock with a rasping pile-driver two minutes from time.

However, the euphoria on the pitch quickly evaporated and the still celebrating Blues fans were cruelly silenced when the visitors swept up-field and equalised inside a minute through Philip Byrne.

Previously, United had played all their home games on Friday nights and this was their first Saturday evening fixture. In the build-up to the match there was much discussion on whether or not the change would be for the best and it will probably be a month or so before a reliable assessment can be made. However, despite the biting cold and atrocious conditions on the day, an encouraging attendance of 620 paid through the turnstiles and that was an increase on some of last season’s games.

Another change this season is that United has opted for squad numbers, something that didn’t please many of the fans who indicated to The Munster Express that they preferred the old 1 to 11 shirt-system. Speaking of shirts, the Blues’ new, stylish 3-sponsorted strip looked very well indeed and, no doubt, will soon be proudly worn by many fans.

Visitors’ attacks

Played in a gale-force wind and driving rain, Sporting Fingal had the best of the early stages doing most of the attacking in the first 20 minutes during which they forced a succession of corners.

On 22 minutes, United’s Alan Carey took the ball off the line from Shaun Williams following a kick from the corner-flag by Conan Byrne. As the ball was being cleared, Conan Byrne appeared to be fouled in the area by Carey but, to the relief of the home side, referee Graham Kelly went the other way and showed Byrne a yellow card for ‘diving’!

Four minutes later, Conan Byrne almost unhinged the defence on 26 minutes with a superb snap-shot from 40 yards which took two efforts from Michael Devine to bring under control. On the half-hour, a free by Williams skidded dangerously across the face of the Waterford goal but there was no Fingal player available to apply what would have been the slightest touch to turn the ball into the net.

Fingal’s best chance of an opening goal came on 32 minutes. Carey tried to police a long-ball from Williams over the end-line but Gary O’Neill robbed him and passed the ball back to Alan Kirby who delivered a superb ball to Eamon Zayed at the far post. But, amazingly, the striker turned the ball wide when it seemed easier to score.

Shortly before half-time, Carey fired a tantalising free across the Fingal area but there was no Blues player in a position to take advantage of the opportunity.

Sporting Fingal continued to dominate after the break and, within three minutes, O’Neill was put clean through by Robert Bayly but he shot straight into the arms of Devine. One 55 minutes, Kenny Browne dived full length to turn a Conan Byrne free wide but it was a powerful header just inches wide of his own upright. Phew!

Waterford up gear

Then, with half an hour to go, United suddenly moved up a gear and for the first time in the match had the Dubliners under serious pressure. Browne was just wide from a Kevin Waters’ corner and, minutes later, Waters unleashed a fierce shot from 40 yards that Darren Quigley did well to hold. On 68 minutes, a corner from Waters from the right zipped low across the visitors’ goalmouth and all it needed was a touch but nobody arrived in time. Paul McCarthy was looking ever dangerous and, on 73 minutes and 80 minutes, he produced powerful shots that shaved the opposition’s paintwork.

Sporting Fingal were working hard to contain a resurgent United but something had to give and the United breakthrough came on 88 minutes when a long throw-in from Seamus Long was touched out of the goalmouth to Dunphy and his majestic, powerful shot gave goalkeeper Quigley no chance as it almost took the nets off their stanchions.

But, they say a team is at its most vulnerable after it scores and so it turned out to be. With the Waterford players already counting the points, the visitors forced a dubious corner straight from the restart and, when Conan Byrne floated the ball across the goalmouth, Philip Byrne rose above the defence and headed powerfully to the net past a helpless Devine.

Two goals inside one minute and that was the way it ended. The Blues will be kicking themselves but, that said, a draw against the hot favourites to win the title was no bad result either.

Waterford United: Michael Devine, Seamus Long, Alan Carey, Kevin Murray, Graham Cummins, Kenny Browne, Kevin Waters, John Kearney, Paul McCarthy, David Grincell (Kieran Fitzgerald, 58 minutes), Gary Dunphy (Joe Mulcahy, 93 minutes). Substitutes not used: Paul Carey, Kevin Burns.

Sporting Fingal: Darren Quigley, Brian Gannon, John Frost, Shaun Williams (Shane McFaul, 90 minutes), Philip Byrne, Shaun Maher, Conan Byrne, Robert Bayly, Eamon Zayed (Robbie Doyle, 69 minutes), Gary O’Neill, Alan Kirby (Ross Gaynor, 80 minutes). Substitutes not used: Colm James, James Hussey.

Referee: Graham Kelly, Cork.