Ards approach Intermediate final in high spirits after clinching Championship crown
Ards manager Niall Currie says the pressure is off his side as they look to end their latest spell in Championship One with the Intermediate Cup, after a 3-0 victory over Loughgall on Saturday landed them the league title.
Tonight (Monday, 7.30pm) sees the Peninsula men take on Institute at Windsor Park in a bid to complete a memorable double - their third game in five days - but having lost to Knockbreda on Thursday night, they were simply relieved to get over the line at the weekend.
Currie, who has now won the Championship title twice each at both Ards and Loughgall, said: “(The final) is a free one for us. The main thing for us this season was to make sure we contended for the title, and we’ve won it.
“It’s been a long season, so we will enjoy the moment for now. It’s a wonderful day, and the players deserve all the credit.
“I thought that was one of our best performances of the season out there today - we looked hungry, and most importantly, we looked like we were chasing a title.”
Kick off was preceded by 30 seconds of applause by players and supporters for Ards winger Gary Warwick, who sustained a fractured skull during an attack in Belfast city centre last weekend.
It was followed by a flurry of four golden opportunities within five minutes. And Carl McComb was heavily involved, first seeing his header from a Greg Hall cross tipped over by Gareth Buchanan, then marginally unable to connect his outstretched boot to Craig McMillen’s fine cross. He also fired a volley just over, following a quick break down the left from David McAllister.
On 16 minutes, McMillen gave an early warning of his threat from set pieces, as he whipped in a bending corner, forcing Buchanan to tip over. From his second attempt, Ross Arthurs connected a goal-bound header, but Paul Stretton somehow managed to scramble it off the line.
Shortly after this, Ards had the ball in the net, but there were no celebrations as McComb was in a clear offside position when he slid the ball in from McMillen’s cross.
Conversely, the home supporters did rise to their feet on the half hour mark, as most thought Denver Gage had headed home from a McMillen corner, when he had only, in fact, struck the side-netting.
However, the Ards faithful did have something to cheer in the 37th minute, as Arthurs followed up with a neat finish, after McMillen’s earlier effort had been well saved.
Then, two minutes later, a moment to forget for Buchanan, as he could only punch the ball into his own goal from another trademark McMillen in-swinger.
Ards had been so dominant in the first half that it was notable that their opponents didn't have a genuine goalscoring opportunity to speak off. And if there was any remaining doubt about the outcome of this title-deciding encounter, it was put to bed in the 57th minute.
The industrious McComb cut inside to send the ball neatly into the bottom right hand corner, leaving his side with a comfortable closing half hour of their league campaign.
Loughgall did, however, get a chance to hit back in the 59th minute, but Warner Mullen could only hit the wall from the periphery of the Ards area.
From this point, the game began to resemble something of a training exercise for the hosts, and on 78 minutes, Eamon McAllister had a shot saved, and just as McComb was charging in to try and claim his second, Nicky Hudson came in with a timely challenge.
The hosts were playing some lovely one-touch stuff, and a neat move close to the end of the game finished with McComb flicking the ball to Gary Browne, who somehow knocked the ball wide of the post, when hitting the target looked a formality.
Afterwards, victorious skipper James Cully said the thought of his absent team-mate had helped drive Ards to victory in their final league fixture of the campaign.
He remarked: "When something like that happens, it is a big motivator for a team. Now we are able to go to the hospital and give Gary a winner's medal, and that means a lot.
"Ards are a massive club, and the Premiership will be all the better for having us in it. Outside of the big three or four, we have the biggest support in the division, and will bring big crowds to away fixtures.
"For us now, it is about establishing ourselves in the top flight,and making sure we stay there."
MAN OF THE MATCH: Craig McMillen (Ards). Outstanding display, and fully deserving of his warm ovation as he left the field.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH: The jubilant celebrations that followed this title-winning performance, with a personalised summary announced for each Ards player as they walked up to receive their Championship One winners' medal to the applause of the supporters.
SAVE OF THE MATCH: Gareth Buchanan's save from Craig McMillen's 16th minute corner.
BLOOPER OF THE MATCH: Gareth Buchanan punching the ball into his own net from Craig McMillen's 39th minute corner.
Ryan Brown: Not a busy day, but reliable nonetheless. 8
Greg Hall: Impressive range with his passing. 8
Denver Gage: A commanding presence. 8
James Cully: A real steady-Eddie in defence. 8
Thomas Lambe: A positive force in the Ards midfield. 8
David McAllister: Full energy of running. 8
Ross Arthurs: Showed a good eye for a forward pass. 8
David McCullough: Won everything he went for in the air. 8
Craig McMillen: Provided fantastic service for his team-mates. 9
Jordan Baker: Got into good positions. 8
Carl McComb: Carried plenty of attacking threat. 8
Gary Browne: On for McMillen, 63
Ben Browne: On for Baker, 68
Eamon McAllister: On for D McAllister, 55
John Convery: Not used
Aaron Boyd: Not used
Gareth Buchanan: A mixed bag. 6
Andrew Drylie: Did his best to close down. 7
Paul Stretton: Not always first to the ball. 6
Graeme Taylor: Not a standout display, but not terrible either. 6
Nicky Hudson: Composed under pressure. 7
Mark Carson: Quick to respond to any danger. 7
Steven Ferguson: Continued to battle when the chips were down. 7
Marcus Dallas: Played through the pain barrier after early injury. 7
Warner Mullen: Didn't get seeing as much of the ball as he'd have liked. 6
Gary Henderson: Never panicked unduly. 7
Jamie Rea: Injury cut his game short. 6
Mark Dane: On for Stretton, 65
Keith Kearney: On for Rea, 32
Thai Blevins: On for Drylie, 73