Kirk's Amateur League men make it a Rosebowl treble as Scots pay the penalty
Paul Kirk couldn’t hide his joy at the Northern Amateur Football League representative squad securing the Britton Rosebowl with victory over the Scottish Amateur Football Association for a third successive time - and rightly so - as he admitted this was the toughest encounter of his three years in charge.
For not only did the winning manager face a gruelling selection headache in the run-up to the annual tie, due to tough winter weather conditions handing many of the clubs a lengthy fixture backlog, but his side also came back from two goals down to clinch the crown in sudden death penalties.
Gathering his breath during the jubilant post-match celebrations, he remarked: “It’s been quite a few days - celebrating my 63rd birthday on Friday, preparing the team, and now this.
“It’s been the hardest year yet - we didn’t get the preparations we would have liked, but that was out of everybody’s hands. The main thing is that the boys showed massive character today… you need that if you are going to do what these boys did today.
“At one stage, it didn’t look like we would get anything from this, but we changed our approach in the second half, and I felt our substitutes made all the difference.”
Indeed, the warning lights were flashing early on for the hosts after they went a goal down within the opening 12 minutes. In a poor moment for the home defence, they failed to clear from a free kick, and Gary Currie was left to feed the ball to Paul McCracken, who slotted home with ease.
It was unfortunate for the NAFL, who just moments before, had gone close when Thomas Lockhart sent Peter McCann through for a one-on-one with Stuart Wilson, but the Gartcosh United keeper was quick off his line to smother the ball.
Ards Rangers defender William McBurney showed why he was selected for the side with a timely block from a dangerous Niall McClure effort on the 20th minute.
At the other end, David Graham and James Costello were linking up effectively - though perhaps not as effectively as boss Kirk would have liked - as twice in the space of two minutes, the former whipped in inviting crosses, which were met with glancing headers from the latter, only to travel wide.
With three minutes until the break, McClure broke clear and seemed certain to score, yet his sweetly-struck attempt rattled off the inside of the post before it was scrambled to safety.
Curtis Black was brought on at the start of the second half, and his impact was immediate, finding a way through the Scots’ defence within two minutes of his introduction, only to see his ensuing shot well saved by Wilson.
The SAFA found the net in the 52nd minute, with Tony Jaconelli smashing in from the knock-on after Sean Heaver’s free kick, but referee Stuart McFarland rightly ruled it offside.
Shortly after this, Costello was left kicking himself as he dragged a shot wide, rather than opting to pass to the lively Black who, not for the first time, had made himself available in a promising position.
It seemed that the home side were going to pay for their squandered opportunities when their opponents doubled their lead in the 68th minute - the impressive McClure delivering a great corner, and Allan Macpherson connecting well to guide the ball into the top left hand corner.
Yet, five minutes after this, Kirk and his men sensed a glimmer of hope, as Jaconelli brought down Black on the edge of the area. The Shankill United striker regathered himself to send a stunning set-piece strike past the wall and into the top left corner.
Now, the local support were roused, and their team responded with their most positive football of the match - and this was, in turn, rewarded with a second goal - Jonny Roy sending a long free kick from around the halfway line high in the air, and lofty Nortel defender Elliott McKimm rose to nod the ball past the reaches of the helpless Wilson.
In years gone by, the draw would have been sufficient for the team that holds the Britton Rosebowl to retain the coveted trophy, but a more recent tradition has seen the game move straight into a penalty shootout, without extra time, in such circumstances.
And so, despite skipper McCann knocking the NAFL’s first spot-kick over the crossbar, the hosts prevailed with Roy, Timothy Clarke, Costello, Black, and subsequently in sudden death, Graham, McBurney and McKimm all tucking their penalties away. A wide attempt from Jaconnelli and Harry Bruce’s penalty striking the crossbar in sudden death ended the visitor’s hopes of taking the silverware to Scotland.
As he has been in the previous two years, Scottish boss Bruce McNaught was gracious in defeat.
“Two defensive errors cost us, and it is never nice to lose to penalties, but at the end of the day there is no issue,” he stated.
“This game is all about sport, and we have build up a fantastic relationship with the NAFL and look forward to welcoming them to Scotland for next year’s match.”
MAN OF THE MATCH: Curtis Black (Shankill United). This substitute’s half-time introduction into the game gave the NAFL side a new attacking dimension.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH: Elliott McKimm’s 81st minute equaliser was the moment that arguably gave the home side and their supporters the belief that they could retain the Rosebowl.
SAVE OF THE MATCH: Stuart Wilson’s save when one-on-one against Peter McCann in the fifth minute set down an early marker for the SAFA.
BLOOPER OF THE MATCH: This was not a game with any standout mistakes, but it is never a nice feeling to miss a spot-kick in a penalty shootout.
Jon Munn: Will be annoyed to have conceded, but still a good end to an impressive career. 7
Jonny Roy: Free kicks were a massive threat. 8
William McBurney: A real force at both ends of the pitch. 9
Jamie Patterson: Hardly put a foot wrong. 8
Daryl Evans: Did what was asked of him, on the whole. 7
Peter McCann: A positive display - led by example. 8
David Graham: Provided good service, but probably could have been greedier. 8
Aaron Harris: A disciplined performance. 7
James Costello: Got into good positions, but could have tested the keeper more. 7
Niall McAllister: His height was an asset against this opposition. 7
Thomas Lockhart: Held onto the ball well. 8
Elliott McKimm: On for Costello, 58
Ryan Davidson: On for Harris, 80
Timothy Clarke: On for Lockhart, 58
Curtis Black: On for McAllister, 45
Shane Harrison: On for Munn, 58
Stuart Wilson: Gave a good account of himself, despite the two he was unable to keep out. 7
Harry Bruce: Patient and unflappable. 8
Ross Gallacher: A decent showing. 7
Andrew McGowan: Strong, powerful performance. 8
Sean Heaver: Plenty of skill on the ball. 9
Allan MacPherson: Top class passing and movement. 8
Tony Jaconnelli: Carried threat going forward, but not without errors. 7
Niall McClure: Usually involved in his side’s most potent attacks. 8
Paul McCracken: Cool finish got the scoring underway. 8
Gary Currie: Passing helped the Scots dominate the early part of this game. 8
Kenneth McLellan: Vocal and driven, kept those around him well organised. 8
David Tait: On for Wilson, 85
Harry Bruce: On for Gallacher, 67
David Kneale: On for McClure, 82
Douglas Ryan: On for MacPherson, 70
Kevin McLean: Not used
David Matthews: Not used
Dylan Robb: Not used
Belfast Telegraph Digital