Ballyclare 2 - 1 Carrick Rangers: Cup streak a bonus for hill
Comrades boss keen on league points
They may have earned themselves an Irish Cup quarter-final trip to face tournament favourites Crusaders with this 2-1 win over derby rivals Carrick Rangers, but victorious manager Eddie Hill insists this is just the latest bonus in a season that keeps on giving.
Cup football seems to be something of a staple at Dixon Park, where not only have they a rich heritage of trophies to reflect upon, but more recent progress in the knockout tournaments, having already featured in the last four of the Steel & Sons Cup a couple of months ago, for the second successive season.
But this is another level altogether.
Hill, to his credit, did his best to keep a lid on his emotions as he spoke after the game, yet the rapturous cheers from the dressing room behind him said it all. Ballyclare had not only beaten their neighbours, but the team currently top of Belfast Telegraph Championship One, nine places above them.
The Comrades boss said: "The league is my priority – from the start of the season, I have said that the main thing was putting points on the board, and anything else beyond that was a bonus.
"This is definitely right up there with the best results in the past couple of seasons I have been in charge, but this isn't about me – it was the players that won this, and I'm delighted for them. Their effort, their work rate every single week, it is paying off."
The hosts ensured the league leaders were playing catch-up straight from the off, as they were undone by an early sucker-punch from Kyle Agnew after just six minutes.
The Carrick defence seemed to switch off for a second as the former Nortel striker latched onto a long ball from deep, before ghosting in behind to side-foot past Simon Steele.
The strike seemed to serve as an early wake-up call for Carrick, who were unable to capitalise on a number of efforts from outside the penalty area; Aaron Harmon twice lobbing over.
Ballyclare were proving to be just as well organised at the back as they had shown in their forward movement, keeping their neighbours at bay.
The frustration continued for Carrick when Ben Roy collected the ball from Richard Gibson, but was at running at full pelt and as a result, his touch was too heavy and the ball trickled ahead of him and out for a goal kick.
Aside from their opener, Ballyclare had done little to trouble Carrick's goal-mouth, but the clear difference was that they were much more clinical with the chances that came their way.
This was once again evident in the 36th minute, when Daniel Smith robbed the ball from the feet of Ciaran Donaghy, then powered through to smash the ball into the roof of the net.
The on-fire hosts could have been even further in front by the break, but for some excellent goalkeeping from Simon Steele, who saved with his feet from Kyle Agnew, and then was relieved to watch Harmon screw wide.
That could well have been a turning point, as the deficit was reduced with the last move of the first half. Conor McCloskey pulled the ball back to Gibson, who did well to evade a couple of tackles before lifting the ball high into the net.
Both teams had their chances to score in the second period, and while there was an overriding sense of significance that the next goal would be hugely significant, it never actually arrived.
Set pieces could have been the source of an equaliser for the away team, but one free kick from Roy went well over, while another from McCloskey was comfortably saved.
Ballyclare could have given their opponents a mountain to climb in the 66th minute, as Agnew set Chris Trussell free on the right, but he didn't get the angle quite right, and shot across the face of goal.
Carrick continued to push for a way back into the game, and probably should have levelled matters with 12 minutes left, but the lunging Darren Doherty did enough to force McCloskey into a mishit shot when it had looked certain he would score.
Yet it was clear it was not to be Carrick's day in the 80th minute, when an Anthony Lagan header from a McCloskey corner was headed off the line by Kyle Buckley.
Afterwards, Carrick Rangers manager Gary Haveron (pictured) reflected: "Of course, we are bitterly disappointed, because we wanted the reward of getting to the next round.
"But it now means we can focus on the league, and was a Championship side ever going to win the Irish Cup? History tells you probably not.
"I don't think the fact that it was a local derby has any relevance, though it is probably harder for the fans to take. I just don't like losing, no matter who it is against."