As someone who has enjoyed more than his fair share of success in intermediate level football, Crumlin United manager Paddy Kelly knows a good team when he sees it.
Moreover, after watching Immaculata ease to a 2-0 victory over his former table-toppers on Saturday, he thinks the Division 1A title is theirs to lose.
After suffering a heavy 4- 1 defeat against the might of Belfast Telegraph Championship One leaders Dundela in the Steel & Sons Cup final on Christmas morning, there was always the danger of a New Years’ hangover against one of their main league rivals in the days that followed.
However, the Grosvenor Road side simply swept that disappointment aside and got on with the business of trying to secure a sixth successive promotion, starting with this top-of-the-table clash on Saturday. In the end, it was fairly comfortable for the hosts, and the former Donegal Celtic boss tipped his hat to the Mac.
Kelly said: “I have said all along that I think Immaculata are the best side in the league, and I have seen nothing today that would change my mind on that. I think the Mac will decide who wins this league, and if they continue to play as they did today, they are the champions elect.
“Larne Tech, Derriaghy, Dundonald and ourselves are all still in there, but the thing about this Immaculata team is that they have quality all over the pitch – players that could be playing at a higher level, but they choose to stay where they are, and that is a credit to what they are doing here.
“The result is obviously disappointing, but our decision making in the final third was poor today, and a lot of teams will come here and get tanked by a lot more. I thought we defended well and kept our discipline.”
Indeed, discipline was generally at a good level throughout this encounter, with referee Davy McCartney choosing to speak to players on the odd occasion they stepped out of line, rather than reaching for the pocket.
The football was fluid too, although chances were at a premium in the early stages with strikes from Ciaran Murray and James Haughey not unduly troubling Liam McAuley in the away goal.
Crumlin United came closer to opening the scoring in the 19th minute, when a clever diagonal ball from Fergal Burke to Ian Brownlees outfoxed the Immaculata defence, but Gerard Smith came rushing off his line to intercept in time.
Immaculata were not only edging the number of what few opportunities there were up to now, but also hitting the target more regularly. A Colm O’Riordan 21st minute drive from outside the area forced a fine diving save from McAuley, while a panicky Patrick McCafferty effort from the same distance a few minutes later was lashed wastefully over.
The hosts stepped up the pressure, and as a Ciaran Murray free kick was floated into the box, and McAuley came to claim, the keeper believed he was shoved off the ball. The referee’s whistle didn’t sound, and whether McAuley had a case or not, he was certainly relieved to see John Boyce’s subsequent overhead kick placed outside of the left post.
The Crumlin keeper, however, was unable to do anything in the 40th minute, when a clever O’Riordan through-ball picked out Kevin McGovern, giving him plenty of time to pick his spot in the bottom right corner.
The gauntlet had now been thrown down to the visitors, who had spent much of the first half camped in their own half, yet it was Immaculata who looked the more hungry for goals in the second spell.
Set pieces were a rich source of opportunity for the home team, with a Daniel Largey header from a Murray corner not far off, while McAuley did well to keep out a goal-bound in-swinger from Murray himself.
It seemed only a matter of time before Immaculata doubled their lead, and that’s exactly what happened in the 61st minute. A superb threaded pass from Kevin McGovern to Murray only beaten on accuracy by the striker’s sweet finish inside the far post.
Crumlin, in fairness, had put up a decent fight, but they were up against a team who aren’t inclined to squander two-goal leads, and the result was secured. The only saving grace for Kelly’s side was that they didn’t fall further behind when Murray struck the bar with 20 minutes to go.
It was no wonder Immaculata’s manager Kevin Lawlor looked so pleased afterwards.
“Everyone was going on about the Steel & Sons Cup defeat, but for us, this season was always about getting Premier Division football,” he stated.
“The boys could have been down-hearted about it, but I told them to pick themselves up and put in a performance, and fair play to them, that’s what they have done.
“We have points to make up, and we will probably have to win nearly every game, but we will hunt down every team that is ahead of us.”
1 Gerard Smith: His clean sheet capped a fine win. 8
2 James Haughey: Strong in the tackle. 8
3 Michael Fisher: Didn’t let his side down. 7
4 Daniel Largey: Put himself about well. 8
5 Sean McGovern: Quietly effective. 7
6 Colm O’Riordan: Good passing and awareness kept Immaculata on top. 8
7 Tony Heagney: Confident and assured. 7
8 Barry Beggley: Never tried to overcomplicate things. 7
9 Ciaran Murray: Great individual display, both in his passing and finishing. 8
10 John Boyce: Crumlin’s defence had to be at their best to shut him out. 8
11 Kevin McGovern: Terrific throw-ins and he took his goal well. 8
15 Gary Largey: On for O’Riordan, 85
12 Jonathan McDonnell: On for K McGovern, 66
14 Stephen Validay: On for Murray, 90
1 Liam McAuley: Conceding two shouldn’t take away from some excellent saves. 7
2 Eamon McCourt: Didn’t let up when tracking opponents. 7
3 Ciaran Docherty: Put in a fair shift. 7
4 Gavin McArdle: Consistently high standard of defending. 8
5 Gerard Keenan: Kept control of the ball under pressure. 8
6 David Hampton: Had a reasonably quiet game. 6
7 Fergal Burke: Did his best to hit opponents on the counter with long-range passing. 7
8 Conor Mahoney: Didn’t always make the best of the possession he had. 6
9 Patrick McCafferty: Could have tested the keeper more. 6
10 Ian Brownlees: Chased every ball down. 7
11 Patrick Rooney: Sometime tried to take too much on himself. 6
12 Kevin Scannell: On for Mahoney, 82
14 James Creen: On for Hampton, 66
15 James Todd: On for Rooney, 82
MAN OF THE MATCH: Ciaran Murray (Immaculata). Had a big say in this convincing victory, deserved his goal, and was unlucky not to register another.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH: Immaculata’s second goal, scored by Ciaran Murray, was not only well taken, but practically sealed the result.
SAVE OF THE MATCH: Gerard Smith’s quick thinking to nab the ball from the feet of Ian Brownlees and deny Crumlin a sure 19 minute opener.
BLOOPER OF THE MATCH: Both teams did well to keep individual mistakes to a minimum on this frosty afternoon.