It was relief all round for Sean Brown and his Crumlin Star side, after they battled their way into the third round of the Irish Cup against a Malachians side who have only managed one Premier Division point so far this season.
Star, who currently occupy a mid-table slot in the Amateur League’s top flight, enjoyed a memorable run in Northern Ireland’s leading knockout tournament last season, beating the champions from the NI Intermediate League and Mid Ulster League along the way to an eventual exit against Crusaders.
And while this may not have been the straightforward victory that some may have predicted, Brown was simply happy to get past their hosts who looked in the mood to give the former Division 1A, Border Cup and Clarence Cup treble winners a run for their money.
The Star boss remarked: “The main thing is that we got the win. It could have gone to sudden death penalties and I would have taken it. Malachians are not a bad side, and we know they are tough to beat on their own patch.
“The Irish Cup is a special competition to us, and gave us a few great days out last season, and hopefully it can again this year. Like I say though, it doesn’t matter to me how we do it, but I thought we were worthy winners today – we have been working hard on our fitness and I think it told, in the end.”
The visitors began with the type of promise that hinted towards their usual free-flowing brand of football, with Steven Brown picking out Patrick O’Neill, who held up the ball well, but unable to find a way through, knocked back to Brown, who in turn fired over.
And when James Doyle headed the final touch to a Steven Brown cross steered goalwards by Paul McLarnon in the 11 minute, it felt as if the floodgates might be about to open.
However, Malachians - who had strongly protested with referee Iain Banks that Doyle had used his hand – had other ideas.
Just six minutes after conceding, the hosts were given an opportunity to level from the spot, after Padraig Lynch was judged to have handled in the box. This time it was Star disputing with the official, but Jerome McAtee didn’t let this effect him as he dispatched the penalty past Lawrence Mervyn.
The home side looked to build on the momentum of this equaliser, with McAtee’s header from a Gary Kelly corner forcing a reflex save from Mervyn, while Michael Magill’s stop with his leg from a close-range Doyle effort was even more impressive.
The eye-catching Steven Brown looked as if he may send Star back in front all on his own, skipping past two challenges only to fire a half-cross / half-shot into the box with no-one waiting.
The pacey midfielder looked like one of the main goal threats for the visitors, so when he was red-carded for retaliation on the stroke of half-time, it was an indication that a Malachians upset may be on the cards. There was no numerical advantage for them, though, as Brown’s retaliation had followed a rash challenge from Kelly – which saw him also dismissed.
All in all, Malachians had proven themselves to be well-organised and well-drilled, frustrating Star in their few genuine attempts to forge ahead. Those chances continued to be kept to a minimum in the second half, and Malachians may even have taken the lead themselves.
The hosts’ best chance to nick the lead came in the 63 minute, when a through-ball from Oliver McCart found Daniel Bell in clear space, but the striker himself seemed to be taken aback by the opportunity, and scuffed it.
Similarly, Star should really have been ahead in the 72 minute, when Doyle was clean through, yet with Magill beaten, his shot was hooked off the line by Downey, who then proceeded to head to safety once more from a rebound attempt.
Malachians probably deserved to take the game into injury time for their efforts, but as Sean Brown rightly said, his side were much the fitter of the two in the latter stages.
Doyle stretched their lead in the 97 minute, sliding the ball into the bottom right hand corner, from a Barry McKervey cross.
Malachians’ fading hopes were then dealt a critical blow a few minutes later as Downey handled in the box... and McKervey made no mistake with a thumping penalty into the roof of the net.
All that was left was for Doyle to complete his hat-trick with 10 minutes remaining, delivering a neat finish on the rebound after a McKervey free kick clattered off the post.
“That was one of those days,” reflected assistant manager Joe Duffy afterwards. “Our manager and four or five of our players were at a wedding today, so it was always going to be tough.
“I did think we were well in it, though. We have a lot of new players in this season, and it is going to take time, but we will get there.”
Michael Magill: Gave a decent account of himself. 6
Nick Light: Seemed to tire as the game went into extra time. 6
Brian Downey: Made a terrific double-blockage on the line. 7
Michael Hawkins: More than comfortable on the ball. 7
Declan Hackett: A no-nonsense physical display. 8
Ciaran Anderson: A vocal, committed contribution. 7
Oliver McCart: Not taken off the ball easily. 7
Jerome McAtee: Took his penalty with aplomb. 7
Daniel Bell: Finishing could have been sharper. 6
Terence McDonald: Did his best to find a way through. 7
Gary Kelly: Drifted in and out of the game. 6
Damien Mulholland: On for Hackett, 82
Adam McCurry: On for McDonald, 95
Michael Tohill: On for Bell, 71
Niall Largey: Not used
Lawrence Mervyn: Could hold his head high after this outing. 8
Padraig Lynch: Looked to be in control. 7
Philip Savage: Kept things tidy at the back. 7
Jim Campbell: Made his felt in the back-line. 8
Paul Berne: A steady showing. 7
Paul McLarnon: Good passing helped Crumlin when pressing. 7
Steven Brown: Never stopped working. However, red card let him down. 6
Mark Mooney: A solid performance. 7
Patrick O’Neill: Showed some promising footwork. 7
James Doyle: Blistering pace and a well-deserved hat-trick. 7
Kevin Trainor: Wasn’t short on effort. 6
Ciaran Murphy: On for O’Neill, 64
Barry McKervey: On for Trainor, 77
Gary McKernan: On for Lynch, 64
Sean Brown: Not used
Darren Madden: Not used
MAN OF THE MATCH: James Doyle (Crumlin Star). His striker’s instincts were well rewarded with a fine hat-trick.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH: Substitute Ciaran Murphy’s introduction midway through the second half seemed to give Crumlin Star greater attacking purpose.
SAVE OF THE MATCH: Brian Downey’s double-block on the goal-line was a crucial moment in taking the game into extra time.
BLOOPER OF THE MATCH: From hero to villain... Brian Downey’s hand-ball in extra time and subsequent dismissal was the final nail in the coffin for Malachians.