After nearly two decades in the wilderness, North Down appears to be re-emerging as a genuine force within Irish League football.
Saturday's enthralling derby between Bangor and Ards was witnessed by around 1,000 fans, who packed out the Bangor Fuels Arena on the Clandeboye Road.
The past five months had set the scene for this derby encounter. The much-talked about Seasiders are currently top of Belfast Telegraph Championship One with the County Antrim Shield final against Cliftonville at Solitude to look forward to. Ards have had some problems readjusting to life in the Championship after a year in the top flight, but they've managed to keep their local rivals in their sights.
Saturday's derby lived up to the hype. The two famous old rivals delivered an engrossing game of football, with the outcome hanging in the balance until Bangor's Paul McDowell steered a last gasp chance to equalise past the post with the final kick of the game.
At half time, it looked as if Ards were on their way to a comfortable victory. A seventh minute strike from James Cully and an injury time free kick from Gary Warwick gave Niall Currie's men a 2-0 lead. But Bangor fought back. An unstoppable 20-yard thunderbolt from Andy Hall gave Bangor a lifeline in the 76th minute, before Jordan Forsythe turned a corner kick into the net as the clock ticked past the 90 minute mark.
That should have been that, but Ards somehow produced a 94th minute winner. Bangor failed to clear a late free kick, which allowed Mark Burns to drill a shot off the inside of the post. The ball dropped kindly to Ross Arthurs, who poked it home from six yards to spark wild, jubilant celebrations at the Ards end of the ground.
An ecstatic Niall Currie said: “These boys are going to put me into an early grave.
“Sometimes you need a moment like that to change your season, and hopefully that's a moment that we can kick on from. We weren't at our best by any means, but the players deserve a lot of credit because they never stopped running all day. Their work rate was fantastic – that's the sort of shift we want to see every week.
“To get the winner in those circumstances was unreal. There's no high in football like the high you get when you score a late winner in a big game, and that's the first big high I've had in a long time. I'd forgotten what it was like.”
Reflecting on the match, Bangor boss Garth Scates said: “I'm disappointed. I didn't think we deserved to be 2-0 behind at half time, I thought 1-0 would have been right. Then we did so well to fight back in the second half, so to concede at the end was tough. It came from a free kick that wasn't a free kick, but we still should have cleared it. And then Paul McDowell could have equalised at the end.
“We have to take it on the chin. Sometimes a defeat is what you need. Maybe this will be the wake-up call that we need. We can't show up thinking we're going to win every Saturday.”
The 3-2 win puts Ards into second place, six points behind Bangor with a game in hand. Perhaps more importantly than that, Saturday's derby showed that there is no shortage of interest or passion in either of the two North Down clubs. Directors of both clubs will hoping this was a sign of things to come.