Queen's University’s growing reputation as a major force in the cup competitions was underlined once again on Saturday, as they cruised to a comfortable 4-0 victory over Donard Hospital in the first round of the Toals Steel & Sons Cup.
A memorable run all the way to last season’s Irish Cup semi-finals meant the students began this match as even bigger favourites than the sizeable gap between the clubs’ respective places in Belfast Telegraph Championship Two and Amateur League Division 1C would already have dictated.
And despite a goalless scoreline at half time, this match was won by the visiting team in a dominant second half which was infinitely more one-sided than the 45 minutes that preceded it – a fact that the managers of both sides could hardly deny.
Satisfied Queen’s boss Peter Thompson admitted: “The wind and the condition of the pitch were probably levellers for them, but in the whole of the match, they never really threatened us. Normally when you play a team from lower level, if you can keep the scores about even after about 60 minutes, then you can start to wear them down... and that’s what happened.
“Realistically, I wouldn’t say we are looking for a repeat in what we did in the Irish Cup last year, but the Steel & Sons Cup is a trophy we can win, as is the Intermediate Cup, as is the league.
“All three of those are priorities for us, but yes, the Steel & Sons Cup is a special one for me... I have been going with my dad to the final ever since I was a boy. We are notoriously slow starters, but hopefully we can progress this year.”
On the other hand, this result was a steep learning curve for Donard gaffer Andy Rea, who is entering his first full season in charge of a football team, but has plenty of experience in coaching alongside previous manager Phil Harris.
After Saturday’s cup exit, he was honest enough to concede: “The result was hard to take, but probably fair, in the end.
“We held out rightly for the first 65 minutes or so, but then their experience and their fitness told. I think they’ll do well, but for us the main thing is improving on our fifth place in the league last season.
“We have a relatively new group of players, but most of them stayed on from last year, so there is no reason why it can’t be done.”
The hosts at the Billy Neill Playing Fields in Dundonald certainly didn’t look overawed by their Championship opponents, and if there had been any nerves, they were quelled with a string of early saves from Lewis Crothers in the Donard goal – the best of which was a confident catch from a Michael Allison cross, with Connor Mulholland looming large in the penalty area.
The agile goalkeeper came to his side’s rescue again in the 24th minute, as he saved from an Aaron Keenan thumper, before James Lavery shot against the post from a tight angle on the follow-up.
For the most part, Donard did a containing job, but they did push forward around the half-hour mark, with three successive corners to keep Queen’s keeper Declan Brown on his toes.
Phil Green then glanced a header harmlessly wide from a searching Michael McLaughlin long-ball. It may have been a tame finish, but it was yet another indication that Donard were going to get chances against their higher-ranked visitors.
However, when Mulholland sent a bullet header much closer to his intended target in the 42nd minute, it served as a timely reminder of Queen’s superior attacking threat.
Indeed, it wasn’t long until the Championship men had their noses in front. Seven minutes into the second half, Allison broke with speed and timed his ball forward to Mulholland to perfection, allowing the striker to out-pace Frankie Blaney before knocking it past the advancing keeper.
From the restart, Donard’s Dean Moore beat a couple of defenders, but his subsequent effort over the bar from 30 yards was perhaps a tad over-ambitious.
Queen’s were much more clinical and had the upright rattling for a second time in the game, this time courtesy of Keenan, who fired a rasping effort off the post from a Daniel Culbert cross.
Donard’s best opportunity arrived in the 71st minute, when the Colm McGeown seemed as surprised as the Queen’s defenders, to collect a Kyle Burton pass unmarked and juggled the ball clumsily before firing harmlessly into the air.
It was almost as if Queen’s then decided ‘no more Mr Nice Guy,’ as they stunned Donard with a quick double, only two minutes apart.
The first of these, on 74 minutes, was a result of yet another speedy counter-attack, with Ciaran O’Hare breaking from midfield, then taking it wide around the keeper before ending the move with a calm finish inside the far post. The second was unfortunate for McGeown, who in his attempts to clear, hit the ball off tenacious substitute Stephen McDowell, who had closed down quickly.
By now the Donard heads had well and truly dropped, and not even a Blaney goal-line clearance from McDowell late on could do anything to lift their crushed spirits.
Queen’s had one last parting gift for their hosts – O’Hare volleying in from a McDowell cross to complete their afternoon’s onslaught.
Lewis Crothers: Four goals conceded was harsh on him. 6
Damien Devine: Not easily outmuscled. 7
Kurtis Gillespie: Wasn’t short of effort or commitment. 6
Michael McLaughlin: A fairly imposing figure. 7
Frankie Blaney: Kept a cool head for most of the game. 6
Matthew Jones: Won the ball back a few times when possession was lost. 7
Eric Engleby: Held his own. 6
Phil Green: Decent passing and awareness. 6
Dale Hawkes: Not a standout display. 5
Dean Moore: Showed promise as a set-piece specialist. 7
Colm McGeown: Didn’t quite get a foothold in this contest. 5
Jonathan Shanks: On for Hawkes, 61
Kyle Burton: On for Jones, 45
Robert Marsh: On for Green, 61
Declan Brown: Did everything asked of him. 8
Daniel Culbert: Played his part in the clean sheet. 7
Phil Prenter: Kept things straightforward. 7
Daniel Hanna: Never let himself be rushed into a clearance. 8
Jamie McMillan: Enthusiastic and full of running. 8
Aaron Keenan: Instrumental in midfield. 7
Ryan Murphy: Moved well off the ball. 7
Conor Mallon: Always on the lookout for a breakthrough. 7
James Lavery: Carried forward threat but happy to sit deep too. 7
Connor Mulholland: Fully deserved his goal. 8
Michael Allison: Attack-minded and direct. 8
Stephen McDowell: On for Mulholland, 61
Ciaran O’Hare: On for Mallon, 45
Sean Walsh: On for Allison, 61
Aaron Thompson: Not used
Robbie Budden: Not used
MAN OF THE MATCH: Stephen McDowell (Queen’s University). May have only played for 30 minutes, but had such a positive influence.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH: Queen’s first goal was the one they needed most, and Mulholland scored it in the 52nd minute.
SAVE OF THE MATCH: Frankie Blaney’s clearance from Stephen McDowell’s goal-bound effort in the closing ten minutes... but it was ultimately all in vain.
BLOOPER OF THE MATCH: Donard’s Colm McGeown will wonder how different things may have turned out if he’d tucked away his golden opportunity to equalise in the 71st minute.