Hogan's late show keeps tie alive
John Toner celebrates the opening goal with scorer Michael Wilde [All photos: Phil Blagg/County Times].
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A GOAL deep in injury time from diminutive midfielder Barry Hogan ensured The New Saints clinched their first-ever success in European competitions at the 17th time of asking.
The 3-2 win was richly deserved, but Ken McKenna's men still face an uphill task in Latvia after conceding two away goals, which could prove crucial to the outcome of the tie.
TNS had twice taken the lead, through Michael Wilde and Phil Baker, at a rain-swept Latham Park only to be twice pegged back by a brace from Ventspils' striker Vits Rimkus.
But they snatched a dramatic victory in the 94th-minute when Hogan lashed a 15-yard shot into the roof of the net after Wilde's effort had been blocked on the line.
Watched by former Italian national coach Giovana Trapatoni, whose Salzburg outfit await in the second qualifying round, TNS made a brighter start than their opponents as they quickly found their stride on a slick and well-prepared Newtown surface. John Toner almost gave Saints an early lead with a header that fizzed just wide, while Jamie Wood saw his low shot blocked by goalkeeper Pavels Davidovs.
Their early superiority paid dividends after 14 minutes when Hogan crossed to Baker whose flicked-on header was powered into the net by Wilde.
But the Latvians hit back on 27 minutes against the run of play when Duane Courtney lost possession on the half-way line and Sergei Sernetsky surged into the box before squaring for Rimkus to punish the error.
The goal took the wind out of the TNS sails and, in the Latvians' only real spell of pressure, it took a goal-line headed clearance by Steven Beck to prevent Zurab Menteshashvili from adding a second.
McKenna's half time team talk spurred the Saints into action and they soon regained their poise to put the Ventspils defence under pressure again. Half-time sub Ronnie Morgan almost opened his TNS account with his first touch while Wilde missed a golden opportunity.
But there was no mistake on 54 minutes when Davidovs had just denied Scott Ruscoe with a near post save. The keeper flapped at the second of two resulting corners, and Beck's cross was driven inside the right post by Baker.
With the Latvians now looking disorganised at the back, Saints sensed a famous win but appeared to have let their chance slip in the final minute. An early cross from Mikhails Zizilevs took a deflection and Rimkus stole in to level.
But TNS were not to be denied and, with McKenna urging his men forward for one final attack, Hogan seized the goal that his side richly deserved.