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A late Philip Byrne goal two minutes from time rescued a point for Sporting Fingal in the R.S.C on Saturday night. Waterford United had almost succeeded in spoiling the opening day for Liam Buckley's men, after they took the lead in the 86th minute through Gary Dunphy.
Stephen Henderson's small squad was highlighted by the fact that he could only list four players on the bench. Young full back Declan Woodgate was ruled out through illness while striker Willie John Kiely was suspended. Sporting on the other hand had a full bench, as well as five players watching from the stands.
The strong wind dictated that Sporting were probably going to have the upper hand during the first half. As in their two pre-season games, Liam Buckley's side were playing a much more direct game than last season. Waterford's back line dealt comfortably with everything that was thrown at them in the first twenty minutes, but a scramble in the box could have then seen the visitors take the lead.
Gary O'Neill directed the ball goalwards and a combination of two Waterford defenders half cleared it to the edge of the box. Conan Byrne picked up the loose ball and looked to knock the ball around Alan Carey. The former Cobh captain stood his ground and Byrne took a tumble as the ball crossed the goal line. Referee Graham Kelly immediately ran towards Byrne and booked the winger for taking a dive.
Byrne was involved again five minutes later, hitting a surprise shot from thirty yards from wide on the right. Blue's goalkeeper Michael Devine looked to be in trouble, but re adjusted his feet at the last second and blocked the shot just as it took a deceiving bounce in front of him.
David Grincell could have had a penalty when Philip Byrne looked to have tripped him in the area, but Kelly waved away all protests. Sporting had two further chances before the break, making the most of errors by Waterford.
Gary O'Neill chased what looked like a lost cause just after the half hour mark. Carey was hoping to shield the ball and allow it run out of play for a goal kick, but O'Neill had other ideas and nicked possession close to the corner flag. He flicked the ball into the path Alan Kirby, who in turn centred it for the unmarked Eamon Zayed. Zayed would have had time to take a touch if he so pleased, but instead hit it first time and dragged his effort wide of the far post from just eight yards.
On the stroke of half time, Fingal attacked quickly after Waterford cheaply gave the ball away in midfield. Conan Byrne picked out O'Neill at the edge of the box, but the ball got stuck between his feet for just long enough to allow Kenny Browne to challenge and steal possession.
Waterford came into the game as an attacking force in the second half, and were starting to cause Sporting problems in midfield whenever they got the ball down and looked to play their way through. Sporting were still a threat from wide areas and set pieces, but for the most part Kevin Murray and Graham Cummins dominated O'Neill and Zayed.
Waterford were close to taking the lead twice in the space of ten minutes from near identical situations. Cummins saw his header from an inswinging corner bounce just wide of the far upright, before Browne rose above two defenders and looked to direct the ball goalwards - however once again the ball ended up just off target
John Kearney then had a goalbound effort blocked in the box, and Paul McCarthy was unlucky to see his drive from the edge of the box swerve off target at the last moment. Kevin Waters could have had a penalty with ten minutes left when Shaun Maher prevented him from turning in the box, but once again the officials were not interested.
It looked like Waterford were going to start the campaign off with a win when they took the lead four minutes from time. Cummins, now playing upfront, headed the ball down back towards the edge of the box for Kearney. Kearney shaped to hit it, but was quickly closed down and instead helped it out wide into the path of Dunphy. Dunphy's technique looked perfect and hit through the ball with his instep from twenty two yards out, sending it thundering past Darren Quigley.
With time running out, Sporting threw caution to the wind and piled forward in search of an equaliser. They were awarded a contentious corner on the left that Conan Byrne swung in with pace. Philip Byrne got the all important touch inside the six yard box
Waterford United: Michael Devine; Alan Carey, Kevin Murray, Graham Cummins, Seamus Long; Gary Dunphy (Joe Mulcahy 92), Paul McCarthy, Kenny Browne, John Kearney, Kevin Waters; David Grincell (Kieran Fitzgerald 57).
Subs not used: Kevin Burns, Paul Carey.
Sporting Fingal: Darren Quigley; Brian Gannon, Philip Byrne, Shaun Maher, John Frost; Conan Byrne, Shaun Williams (McFaul 90), Robert Bayly, Alan Kirby (Gaynor 80), Eamon Zayed (Robbie Doyle 69); Gary O‘Neill.
Subs not used: James Hussey, Colm James.
Referee: Graham Kelly
Extratime.ie Man of the Match: Graham Cummins (Waterford United).