The margin for error is slim as Galway United venture into the last 180 minutes of 2008 completely aware that a brace of victories are required.
That the last two fixtures of a curious campaign occur against Finn Harps and the already relegated UCD adds a drop of drama. Having lost successive encounters to Derry City in the FAI Cup and league, Galway require a positive result against a Harps outfit that enjoyed a productive outing in United Park on Friday when Stephen Parkhouse emerged as a central protagonist.
Parkhouse has a goalscoring history against Galway too and will need to be patrolled by a Galway defence that must perform with assurance. On Harps’ previous two forays west they have nicked draws both times by demonstrating a willingness to work with the bustling Parkhouse as the attacking spearhead. Such endeavour is the hallmark of a Paul Hegarty team - adamant their top flight status can be preserved.
A testing trip to the banks of the Corrib and a Ballybofey battle with Shamrock Rovers concludes Harps' season and belief has returned to the Donegal outfit. Before the stirring Drogheda comeback Harps had been ailing, taking only eight points from a possible 27 as both Galway and Cobh Ramblers were showing pluck. Still it was Hegarty who was the most satisfied manager at the Brandywell on Sunday as Galway suffered a demoralising defeat.
Throughout the years United have rarely produced at the Foyleside venue, but the Candystripes cruised to a surprisingly facile success. This ensures that Galway will be vexed by pressure tomorrow in a fixture of high consequence. How they deal with the duress will reveal whether another year will be spent in the company of Irish football’s glitterati. The difference between the divisions is vast as Galway have found out during many scary tutorials over the past two years.
In these crucial times statistics can provide nuggets of information and Harps have not won back to back league games in 2008. While Galway have achieved this feat only once, there had been a remarkable efficiency prior to the Derry disaster. Six top flight matches without defeat is a rarity for Galway, but that is precisely what happened, meaning that two more triumphs should provide another Premier campaign.
It will not be an easy task to complete as Harps have proven adept at nicking draws on the Dyke Road. A Cup tie in June 2007 hinted at the potential within the Donegal outfit and when Galway were dumped out of the replay at Ballybofey on penalties Harps started to motor.
Then on May 9, 2008 a fluid contest saw four goals evenly traded as Galway ought to have claimed the full complement. Still Galway did just that when the teams collided on August 1 at Finn Park as John Russell and Jay O’Shea rattled the net. Strangely the same players bagged in the previous stalemate, and the locals will be craving similar contributions from two of United’s most gifted footballers.
Russell and O’Shea’s importance to Jeff Kenna’s innovative system shouldn’t be underestimated. When deprived of Russell’s considerable services through suspension in the Cup semi United weren’t particularly fluent.
Galway’s approach is based on a high work ethic in the centre of the park where John Lester supplies graft and guile, permitting Russell and O’Shea to pull the creative strings. There have been difficulties in combats where Galway haven’t opened brightly, Sligo Rovers and Derry away are two tussles where anxious moments had to be endured.
Kenna and Ian Foster, though, have remained patient, cognisant of the reality that Russell and O’Shea’s potency since the switch has been striking. Having watched Galway frequently in the past four weeks Hegarty will be wise to the threat Russell and O’Shea carry so a flooded central midfield is anticipated.
Harps have the weapons to examine Galway’s defensive nous too with Parkhouse’s power being supplemented by Conor Gethins’ pace. Gethins, the ex Galway frontrunner, is all waspish intent, and is eager to end a goalscoring drought that stretches back to an early autumnal evening when Shamrock Rovers were torched at Tolka Park.
Now with Alan Keane stationed in the centre of the rearguard Galway have the necessary speed to contain Gethins, while John Fitzgerald contests the aerial duels with Parkhouse. United will need Lester and Ciaran Foley to put in shifts in the middle, while Vinny Faherty's work rate will be pivotal, denying the seasoned Harps defenders time and space to drill clearances towards their front two.
During Galway's burst of industry since mid September the displays have been especially pleasing when thundering into proceedings from the first whistle, and the natives will crave a passionate first quarter. All that truly matters at Terryland tomorrow is the end outcome and Galway need to chisel out a victory if the survival mission is to be accomplished.