(Finn Harps win 6-3 on aggregate)
They certainly made a good fight of it, but the pep in Waterford United’s step came a match and a half too late to prevent their relegation from the Premier Division last Friday night.
Gareth Cronin’s men got the three goals they needed at the RSC but they couldn’t prevent the stylish Donegal side from adding three of their own on a freezing night for football.
In truth, the obstacle facing the Blues after their 3-0 first leg defeat in Ballybofey looked too difficult to overcome before Dave McKeon got the game underway.
And when Finn Harps’ Michael Funston tapped into an empty net after 16 minutes, the players and home faithful alike were resigned to their fate: First Division football in 2008.
For United to turn around their first leg deficit, everything had to fall in their favour and from the off. Alas it was not to be, as Paul Hegarty’s side wove some delightful patterns in the opening 20 minutes and fully merited their early lead.
Cronin’s decision to start with three centre backs (Kenny Browne, Alan Kearney and David Breen) soon came undone as the visitors’ attacked with pace and depth.
All three found themselves on the back foot as the impressive Conor Gethins, Stephen Parkhouse and Marc Brolly roamed forward with ominous intent. And when Funston opened the scoring (albeit after David Breen appeared to be fouled in possession) it came as no great surprise.
Indeed, the only surprise of the opening half was Harps’ inability to find a second goal such was their dominance.
As the half-hour beckoned, Finn Harps continued to attack in waves against a Waterford side that found it difficult to threaten James Gallagher’s goal. In fact, the Blues failed to force Gallagher into action during the opening 45 minutes.
Tony Shields shrugged off a couple of tackles before threading the ball through to Gethins, who was clear on goal with Parkhouse in support. Delaney advanced to narrow the angle and did well to save from Gethins, who really ought to have done better with no Blues defender closing him down.
Twelve minutes before the break, Delaney produced another super stop after Gethins was put through following an excellent interchange of passes between Shields and Parkhouse.
By half-time, optimism was in scant supply among the majority of the 1155 paying customers, while the 300-odd Finn Harps fans were filling the icy air with chants of “going up, going up, going up”.
After the break, indeed for the first time in this play-off, the Blues injected purpose and energy into their play, but not before Harps registered their fifth goal of the tie.
Three minutes after the resumption, the pacy Gethins (a player to watch next season) finished off a fine passing move which owed more to Harps doing things well than Waterford doing anything badly.
Two down on the night and five down on aggregate, one might have thought that the Blues would wave an early white flag, but that didn’t prove to be the case.
On 48 minutes, substitute Cathal Lordan fired home a superb 20-yard free-kick, high to the flat-footed Gallagher’s right after Jonathan Minnock had handled the ball on the edge of the penalty area.
Seven minutes later, Willie John Kiely should have added a second but his header, following an excellent Paul McCarthy cross, flew the wrong side of the crossbar.
Looking increasingly dangerous from set-pieces, the Blues restored parity on the night after Browne brilliantly headed home Dave Warren’s lofted free in the 67th minute.
But, with little option but to press forward with additional bodies, the wind was knocked out of the Blues’ sails three minutes later when Harps struck again.
United’s Dave Mulcahy was caught in possession by Gethins almost 40 yards from goal; who released strike partner Parkhouse to fire the ball low beyond Delaney from 10 yards. Cue delirium among the travelling hoard and abject resignation amongst Blues fans.
But to give Waterford United their dues, they surged forward again from the restart and sought a third goal of their own against a team unbeaten in 13 matches.
In the 87th minute, Vinny Sullivan was dismissed after an altercation with Harps stopper Shaun Holmes and it looked as if the host’s chances of even achieving a draw on the night had evaporated.
Yet with just seconds remaining, Warren scored the sixth goal of the night after his scuffed shot from inside the 18-yard-box deceived Gallagher and slid inside the keeper’s left-hand post.
As the clock ran out, the joyous Finn Harps fans unfurled a flag at the foot of the stand which read: ‘Back Where We Belong’.
The home support acknowledged the fine free flowing football that the winners had produced and afforded hearty applause to the relegated Blues, whose recent run of good form had deserted them during the critical moments of this play-off.
What lies ahead in terms of the composition of the team for 2008 will be decided in the weeks and months to follow as Waterford United prepare for a return to life in the First Division.
Waterford United: Delaney, Browne, Kearney (Scully 56), Hayes (Hedderman, 48), Breen (Lordan, 22), Warren, D Mulcahy, McCarthy, Sullivan, Kiely, A Mulcahy. Subs not used: Grincell and Holden.
Finn Harps: Gallagher, McLoughlin, Minnock, Boyle, Holmes, Shields, Funston, McGowan, Parkhouse, Gethins, Brolly (Divin, 66). Subs not used: Brown, Asokuh, Roddy and Cullen.
Referee: Dave McKeon (Dublin)