Immaculata are just champion as they overcome Ards Rangers on final day
The secret to Immaculata’s first ever Amateur League Premier Division title win – and all the success that has preceded it – has rarely been more obvious than in the moments following their final day victory against former title rivals Ards Rangers on Saturday.
For while players and supporters were rightly celebrating their 23rd triumph of a 26-game league campaign with sing-songs and champagne, the manager who has presided over their heady progress for the past decade was taking a quiet moment to reflect.
Yet Kevin Lawlor wasn’t basking in pride and glory, or the sweet satisfaction of a job well done. No, he was thinking about the one that got away.
Saturday, August 15 – the day when the Mac lost away to Drumaness Mills, their only defeat of an almost perfect league season only otherwise ‘blemished’ by draws at Malachians and Crumlin United.
“That defeat still annoys the life out of me,” remarked Lawlor, only minutes after seeing his men overcome their closest title challengers, and previous champions, at Drome Park.
“I don’t want to lose any game. Mathematically, we had wrapped the title up on Thursday with the win over Downpatrick, but we weren’t coming here for a fun game.
“These boys have been brilliant for me all season – in fact, most of them have been brilliant for me all the last 10 years. They have been loyal to this club, even though a lot of them have been tortured to join Championship clubs, they have stayed here as they’ve understood what we are about and what we are trying to do.
“There are probably about 20 names of people I could mention, who have all played a massive part in this. They know who they are, and I thank them for it – this is for them. But I want to give our chairman Jim McKee a special mention.
“There was a stage this club looked like it might not continue, and he kept it going. He has given the last 50 years to this club and deserves so much credit.”
And while this is undoubtedly the peak of their achievements so far – yes, arguably even more so than their three successive Junior Cups, the Junior Cup / Junior Shield / Clarence Cup / Division 2C quadruple of their debut Amateur League season in 2009, and reaching the Steel & Sons Cup final in 2013 – Lawlor has warned their opponents they are out to topple even this season in the years ahead.
He said: “The next trophy we want to win is the Steel Cup. And the Irish Cup is a big thing for us, too. People say we can’t win that, but why not?
“We keep getting further and further, and with the players we have brought through from the seconds this year, we are getting stronger and stronger. We keep learning, and that’s why we are champions.”
Even a draw in Thursday’s close-fought game between Downpatrick and Immaculata would have turned Saturday’s clash between the Premier Division’s top two into a nail-biting title decider… but that wasn’t to be.
Yet even though this was, on paper, a dead rubber fixture, it certainly didn’t resemble as much on the pitch.
Pride was at stake, and Ards Rangers – who marked Immaculata’s entrance onto the turf with a guard of honour – started with intent, as a quick counter sparked by Gary McDermott finished with Padraig Adams coming all the way back to clear off the line from a Glen Upton shot.
Soon after this, Ryan Newberry struck the base of the Mac post with a rasping 30-yard effort, while a Ricky Rutherford header from a McDermott corner was easily saved by Johannes Franken.
However, it was Immaculata who took the lead in the 18th minute, when Kevin McGovern was sent clear, before sliding the ball into the bottom left corner.
The hosts, for all their early domination, looked shell-shocked, and the new champions capitalised just four minutes later, with John Dynes showing a canny piece of skill to get on the end of a dipping free kick, and flick the ball over the reaches of advancing keeper David Ferguson.
Looking to respond, Jonny Hall, featuring in his final game in 13 years with Rangers, fed the ball towards Upton, whose close-range volley was parried over.
Meanwhile, Dynes, whose confidence had him playing at the top of his game, was unfortunate to see his audacious 35-yard attempt travel narrowly above the crossbar.
Rangers had an opportunity to pull a goal back at the ideal point, just before half time, yet Simon Moffatt managed to blast over from a couple of yards out, as he followed up from Newberry’s saved free kick.
The home support did, however, have reason to cheer shortly after the interval, as Upton was on-hand to smash the ball in at close quarters, after Rutherford’s earlier shot from a Newberry cross rebounded back out, off the inside of the post.
The hosts then repeated the trick of their opponents from the first half – striking quickly again while they recovered. This time it arrived in the form of an unstoppable 53rd minute free kick from Newberry, who found the top right corner from the edge of the box.
The Mac only allowed Rangers nine minutes to enjoy parity, though, as Sean McGovern’s free kick took a deflection off the wall, only to be pushed away by the quick-thinking Ferguson… but Christopher Lawlor was well-placed at the back post for the tap in.
A Rutherford header from an Upton cross almost had the scores level again, with 15 minutes to play, but the former Dunmurry Rec man was only to find the crossbar with his effort.
Rangers ended the game with 10 men, as referee Keith Halliday’s decision to send off Willy McBurney for his challenge on Daniel Largey drew consternation from the home bench, but in the end, it had no impact on the result - nor the seven-point gap by which the Grosvenor Road men ultimately won the title.
Home manager Lee Forsythe congratulated Immaculata on their victory, and believes the impending promotion of Division 1A champions Rathfriland Rangers and runners-up Lisburn Rangers will provide greater competition in the division.
He will expect his side to be up there challenging again, just as they have been over the last six or seven seasons, with top-four finishes close to a formality for them these days. Several other managers will likely share these sentiments.
However, it will take a monumental effort for any team to finish above the new champions, whose insatiable hunger for silverware shows no sign of abating.
MAN OF THE MATCH: John Dynes (Immaculata). Full of energy and a real goal threat any time he got within 10 yards of the opposition box.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH: Ryan Newberry’s 53rd minute free kick was a beauty, but Christopher Lawlor’s winning strike nine minutes later typified Immaculata’s attitude for the entire season.
SAVE OF THE MATCH: Johannes Franken’s stop from Glen Upton’s close-range volley, shortly after Immaculata’s second goal.
BLOOPER OF THE MATCH: Simon Moffatt was left with his head in his hands after missing on the rebound from Ryan Newberry’s saved free kick on the stroke of half time.
David Ferguson: Had his moments, despite conceding three. 6
Adam Whitehead: A reasonably quiet game. 6
Marc Roy: Not lacking in effort. 7
Willy McBurney: Red card a sore point in otherwise positive display. 6
Jamie Patterson: Won the ball well on occasion. 7
Gary McDermott: Good delivery, though end product could have been better. 7
Jonny Hall: Bowed out early in second half to receive deserved ovation after 13 years. 7
Ryan Newberry: Showed pure quality in flashes, particularly his goal. 8
Ricky Rutherford: Unable to get himself on score-sheet despite numerous attempts. 7
Glen Upton: Instinctive finishing at the back post. 8
Simon Moffatt: Covered plenty of ground. 7
Jonny Roy: On for Hall, 52
Craig Campbell: On for McDermott, 70
Gary Brown: On for M Roy, 76
Johannes Franken: Vocal and driven. 7
James Haughey: Well organised, hardly put a foot wrong. 8
Colm Carson: Didn’t give opponents a moment’s rest. 8
Daniel Largey: Tenacious and tireless. 7
Sean McGovern: Kept things tight. 7
Colm O’Riordan: Won the majority of his 50-50s. 8
Billy McGovern: Played his part in his side’s lead before half time substitution. 7
Christopher Lawlor: Superb turn of pace and a great engine. 8
John Dynes: Looked hungry for goals. 8
Padraig Adams: Selfless and more than happy to track back when needed. 8
Kevin McGovern: Tremendous work-rate rewarded with a goal. 8
Tiarnan McGreevy: On for B McGovern, 45
Gerard McClenaghan: On for K McGovern, 69
Patrick Maguire: Not used