Bright times ahead for Lower Shankill after dramatic shootout win over Tullymore Swifts
Lower Shankill 2 Tullymore Swifts 2 (Lower Shankill win 7-5 after penalties)
The post-match celebrations in the home dressing room said it all. Lower Shankill may not have won the Junior Cup itself on Saturday, but the very nature of this victory that puts them into the semi-final draw hints that this set of players could well be on the cusp of something very special.
From looking comfortable at 1-0 up to coming from behind, in normal time and then again in extra time, before ultimately clinching the win on penalties, the Amateur League Division 2C men showed why they continue to impress, both in this competition and in the Clarence Cup, where they have so far reached the quarter-final stage.
Lower Shankill are a club with a rich and well-renowned history in Churches League football, but this competition in particular, with over 200 clubs across Northern Ireland competing from the outset, gives them the biggest platform of all to showcase their ability. And their manager, Stephen Paul feels it is only a matter of time before they have something to place in the trophy cabinet.
He stated: “I have been at this club for 24 years now, and we have always won trophies… this current group are going to push on and win some of their own. It would be great if they could do it this year.
“The priority was always the league, but after losing last weekend, I would really like to see us give the cups a real go.
“I was so pleased with the players’ attitude today – they deserve a lot of credit for the way they kept fighting back.”
Certainly, it was the home side who showed all the early promise in a scrappy opening period. Visiting keeper Patrick Crawford showed spectators a glimpse of his exceptional ability by tipping a powerful 18th minute Scott Campbell free kick onto the bar, and although Jonny Ward headed in from the rebound, referee Brian Gallagher ruled him offside.
Campbell tried his luck again with a set piece from a similar distance five minutes later, but this time it was deflected out for a corner. Moments after this, he delivered an inviting cross into the Tullymore box, and Steven Burns, at the back post, somehow contrived to scoop a connecting volley well over the target.
The wasted chances mounted up for the dominant Shankill side, as a lofted ball looked destined to pick out Burns for a clear header on goal, but Michael May was alert to rush in with a crucial intercepting header.
The hosts eventually got the breakthrough strike their early pressure warranted in the 34th minute; the influential Ward cutting in from the left to find the bottom right hand corner with a neat finish.
They could even have been two to the good, approaching half time, with Scott Campbell finding Craig McCann with a through ball so incisive that it even appeared to take the latter by surprise as he ballooned a half-volley well over.
Crawford started the second half much like the first, getting down to tip away a drilled effort from Campbell, and then was quickly out to smother a close-range attempt from Burns, who had weaved his way through a crowded box.
Tullymore hearts were almost in mouths as Ward beat the offside trap and Crawford too this time, only to be denied by Joseph Harbinson, who was on the goal-line to clear the danger.
Then, on the hour mark, came the first of two stunning Tullymore goals in as many stunning minutes.
The first arrived from the boot of Hetherington, a superb strike with an abundance of accuracy and power combined, to leave sprawling Lower Shankill keeper Gary Fluke helpless.
And if that goal left all watching breathless, the next was even sweeter, with Damien Fegan guiding an unstoppable 25-yard free kick in off the base of the left hand post to leave their hosts looking every bit as dazed as boxing champ Carl Frampton’s beaten opponent Chris Avalos in the city just a few short hours later.
This was a genuine test of character for Lower Shankill, and they initially responded with a sustained period of pressure, with Crawford yet again doing remarkably well to save from David Bright at a range of a couple of yards.
Eventually, in the 77th minute, their endeavours were rewarded once more, as a well-placed Ward stabbed home at the back post from a Campbell corner, to bring the game into extra time.
This followed a similar pattern to the second half, with Tullymore’s Fegan slotting in from a Matthew McCafferty corner in the first ten minutes, and Burns producing a timely and accurate equaliser with just seconds on the clock.
And so, it was to penalties. Fluke literally grabbed the opportunity to shine by both hands, saving from Brendan Knox and Sean McCarthy, to leave Fegan and David Neeson Tullymore’s only players to net from the spot. Gary Anderson was the only Lower Shankill man to have his attempt saved, in a shootout that saw his team-mates Darren McCullough, McCann, Ward and Thomas Morrison all tuck their penalties away, sealing a memorable victory.
Tullymore boss Neil Meenan later reflected on that his side, who currently lie bottom of the Belfast & District League Premier Division, had raised their game on the day, proving more than worthy of their quarter-final place.
He added: “I am so proud of the boys. I felt Lower Shankill shaded the first half, but we matched them for the rest of the game – it was just a shame someone had to lose.
“We wish them well for the rest of the tournament.”
Gary Fluke: Ultimately a match-winning display. 9
Craig McCann: A committed effort. 7
Gary Anderson: Found his team-mates well from distance. 8
Darren McCullough: Got his side off to a winning start in the penalties. 7
Phillip Addis: Great accuracy with his passing. 7
Gary Shields: Tidy and well-organised skipper’s display. 8
Scott Campbell: Skilful and a major threat with the ball. 8
Thomas Morrison: Pulled the strings in midfield. 7
Jonny Ward: Two deadly strikes at critical times. 9
Steven Burns: Lively. Kept Tullymore’s defence on their toes. 9
Peter Greenwood: Pressed his opponents hard. 7
Gary McKeown: On for Campbell, 100
David Bright: On for Addis, 70
Ryan Butler: On for Greenwood, 70
Patrick Crawford: Outstanding, kept score-line down to minimum. 9
Stephen Fegan: Held his own on the big occasion. 7
Joseph Harbinson: Kept a cool head. 7
Tony Campbell: Quick to close down. 8
Michael May: Not afraid to get forward. 8
David Neeson: Did the simple things well. 7
Ciaran Kerr: Tireless and relentless. 8
Damien Fegan: Two goals and plenty more besides. 9
Joseph May: Covered every blade of grass. 8
Danny McGrillen: Drifted in and out of the game. 6
James Hetherington: Wonder-goal got his team off the mark. 8
Matthew McCafferty: On for Kerr, 84
Sean McCarthy: On for May, 74
Brendan Knox: On for McGrillen, 56
Eamon Kyles: Not used
Jim McAuley: Not used
MAN OF THE MATCH: Gary Fluke (Lower Shankill). A great performance topped off with his penalty heroics at the end.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH: The two minutes in which Tullymore Swifts turned the score-line on its head in the second half really brought this game to life.
SAVE OF THE MATCH: Patrick Crawford tipping onto the crossbar from Scott Campbell in the 18th minute set the tone for an impressive individual display.
BLOOPER OF THE MATCH: Steven Burns’ miss from a couple of yards out, midway through the first half, but he more than made up for it later.
Belfast Telegraph Digital