The relief was etched all over the face of Aquinas manager John McCormick as he applauded his players following their 1-0 victory over Bangor YM at the weekend.
This may not have been a classic encounter – few ever are at this desperate stage of the season – but with plenty at stake at both ends of the table, the main thing for both teams was picking up the three points, which the away side managed to do… even if they did leave it very late.
The Division 2B leaders went into this game with a very clear perspective on their position. With Greenisland and Finaghy now placed seven and nine points respectively behind them, and both having four games in hand over Aquinas, whose only remaining game is against Greenisland this Saturday, victory was the only option for Aquinas to keep their promotion dream alive.
McCormick admitted: “The title push slipped through our hands, but if we hadn’t won that match today, the promotion push would have been over too. Now we go into a top-of-the-table clash with Greenisland needing the same again.
“The thing that pleased me about today was that we kept creating chances. We knew Bangor were struggling, but we also knew that they would fight hard for the points and that it is how it turned out – but I was never worried that we wouldn’t score.
“We are pushing for our second promotion in two years now, and we are definitely heading in the right direction.”
Bangor found themselves with a gilt-edged opportunity after just six minutes, with Lee Goodwin finding Glen Bailie in clear space. The striker was unchallenged and had time to pick his spot from outside the area, but ended up firing well over.
Immediately after this, Conal McCarry whipped a wicked cross in to James McKee, who shot left of the target. Aquinas continued to attack, as Garrett Cullen fed the ball to McKee, who this time launched it wastefully over the bar, and when McCarry put in a high cross destined for Ruari Taylor, Mike Chalmers intercepted with a timely fingertip save.
In the 20th minute, Bailie turned to shoot, but couldn’t get the required power to test the keeper, while Chalmers wisely left a Taylor effort, which just about cleared the bar.
Meanwhile, in the opposite goal, Stephen McDonald’s quick thinking prevented a Bangor opener, as the Aquinas keeper rushed off his line, hurrying Jonny McAllister into a wayward chip that travelled wide of the mark.
Aquinas remained on the front foot, and although Martin Ramsey’s free kick was headed out for a corner, he did manage to head on target from Simon Ramsey’s resultant set piece – the only trouble for him this time was that Chalmers caught well to deny him.
The second half saw the gutsy host continue to make a mockery of their league position, holding out against their opponents while creating a few chances of their own. One of their better chances, 10 minutes in, saw Bailie put a free kick just wide of the goal.
Both keepers did well to keep the scores at zero, with Chalmers doing well to deny Eamon Doherty at close quarters and Conal McCarry rushing in to hit a swerving effort wide of the right post, while Aquinas keeper McDonald got down quickly to save from Goodwin’s central effort from the edge of the area.
This was developing into a real battle, with both teams fighting hard for the much-needed points, and when Aquinas were unable to find the net during a frantic spell in the 82nd minute - when a McKee header crashed off the crossbar and Martin Ramsey’s overhead kick was cleared off the line by Jonny McAllister – it seemed it was a destined to finish in a draw.
However, two minutes later, Martin Ramsey worked hard to get the ball down the right and crossed to sub Eamon Doherty, who smashed in gratefully from a matter of yards to seal the victory for Aquinas.
Deflated Bangor boss Alan Finlay said afterwards: “We had four first teamers out today, but I felt the boys acquitted themselves well.
“The problem has been that we haven’t been playing that well since Christmas, and it has left us with a real relegation battle. We know we have some big games ahead of us before the season finishes.”
MAN OF THE MATCH: Martin Ramsey (Aquinas). Never gave up, despite time ticking on, and set up the winning goal as a result.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH: Eamon Doherty’s strike rewarded Aquinas’ determination to push until the end.
SAVE OF THE MATCH: A tough call, but Stephen McDonald’s save from Lee Goodwin deep into the second half was probably the pick of the bunch.
BLOOPER OF THE MATCH: Glen Bailie’s early miss over the bar in the opening period of the game wasn’t one for the highlight reel.
Mike Chalmers: Pulled off some top saves. 7
Michael Lemon: Tenacious and resilient. 8
Ivan Paul: Did a decent defensive job. 7
Rys Conn: Kept things tight at the back. 7
Stevie McAllister: Stood his ground well. 7
Lee Goodwin: Committed to every challenge. 7
Kris Gardiner: An effective link-up player. 8
Matty Legg: Held his own. 7
Glen Bailie: Showed good purpose in bursting forward. 7
Sam Howell: Made a few clever first touches. 8
Jonny McAllister: Performed well at both ends of the pitch. 8
Jonny Small: On for Bailie, 48
John Sloan: On for Goodwin, 85
Neil Bailie: On for Paul, 45
Stephen McDonald: A fine showing between the sticks. 8
Conal McCarry: Effective crossing and showed bags of pace. 8
Garrett Cullen: Steady on his feet. 7
Patrick Turley: Rarely beaten in the air. 7
Conor Geoghegan: Showed some good decision-making. 7
David Fitzpatrick: Worked hard for his team. 7
Peter McIlvenny: His corners gave the opposition something to think about. 8
Simon Ramsey: A fair contribution. 7
Martin Ramsey: Fantastic attitude made the difference. 8
James McKee: Made his presence felt in the final third. 7
Ruari Taylor: Good positional awareness. 8
Odhran Lenaghan: On for Cullen, 65
Eamon Doherty: On for S Ramsey, 65
Patrick Lowe: On for McIlvenny, 55