Immaculata took another major step towards establishing themselves as one of the most feared sides in local football, with a never-say-die win over runaway Championship Two leaders Lurgan Celtic to book their place in the Intermediate Cup quarter-finals.
Let’s get one thing straight from the outset: this was no one-off. Yes, Immaculata’s speedy rise up the ranks has been as impressive as their domination at junior level, capped off by three successive Junior Cup victories, but Kevin Lawlor’s side have proved time and again that they are destined for even greater things.
This may only be the Mac’s first season in the Amateur League Premier Division, but they earned kudos with a victory over Championship One club Harland & Wolff Welders in this competition last year, while also reaching the Steel & Sons Cup final in the same campaign.
With only one league defeat in 16, Celtic are beginning to look a Championship One side in all but name, and although Immaculata weren’t able to dominate this contest in the same way they have done so many others, what really stood out from this display was their resilience, especially after being reduced to 10 men on the cusp of extra time.
Lawlor said: “We dug in… we just don’t stop. Our boys never know they are beat, and you certainly don’t throw in the towel just because you get a man sent off.
“I am not saying we’ll win the Intermediate Cup, but at the same time, I can’t see why not. A lot of teams will be fearing us… and if they weren’t before, they will be now!”
Immaculata did start brightly, with Michael Goff called into action early, to save at Kevin McGovern’s feet, while Daniel Largey headed over the bar from a Colm O’Riordan corner.
But from here, the momentum shifted noticeably towards the away side, with a raft of chances for the men in the hooped shirts.
A Dale Malone volley soared above the goal, while Raymond Fitzpatrick took the ball off Stephen Hutchinson before powering through on goal, only to be denied by goalkeeper Gerard Smith, who stood firm.
Other opportunities saw Malone send a free kick over the bar, and Fitzpatrick direct two headers over the bar.
Yet just when Celtic seemed to have the measure of their opponents, Immaculata responded with the opening goal of the match in the 38th minute. It came from an accurate James Haughey cross, finished by a delightful looping Kevin McGovern header.
Celtic stayed positive in the second half and Josh Barton typified this, finding himself unfortunate to miss the upright by inches with an ambitious effort from just outside the box. A Malone free kick was just too high for Fitzpatrick, who tried, unsuccessfully, to connect a header to it.
Malone then thought he had levelled the scores with a delicate chip over Smith in the 59th minute, and clearly the travelling support shared this sentiment, but as the effort rebounded off the inside base of the post and harmlessly across the face of goal, their premature cheers turned to gasps of despair.
On such moments are games decided, yet Lurgan did their best with a header from Fitzpatrick saved, and another from John Cochrane travelled inches wide. Meanwhile needless indiscipline began to creep in with the hosts, who, despite their lead, saw Gary Dorrian, Kevin McGovern and O’Riordan all booked for dissent within a 10 minute period.
Smith had to be at his best for a powerful Malone free kick from 30 yards, and he did well to tip it over the bar. There was no question the Lurgan men were turning the screw, but when Fitzpatrick headed straight at the keeper from a Malone corner in the 84th minute, it really looked like it mightn’t be their day.
Nevertheless, when Boyce miskicked a golden opportunity to seal the victory directly at the opposing goalkeeper five minutes later, it seemed like fortune might be facing the visitors after all.
And so it proved, as an injury time Declan McVeigh free kick from inside the Lurgan half found its way to Daniel Ryan for an equalising tap-in.
In the ensuing minutes, things went from bad to worse for Immaculata when Dorrian picked up his second yellow card for a challenge on Barry Baggley. However, they could consider themselves fortunate to still be in the tie when, in the last move of normal time, Chris Lavery struck the post, and Barton fired over from the close-range rebound.
Even though Lurgan entered extra time with the numerical advantage, it was the gutsy hosts who now looked more likely to score, especially when Goff was sent off for bringing down O’Riordan in the box.
In stepped Malone between the sticks, up stepped O’Riordan to smash the ball high into the roof of the net at the end of the first period of extra time.
But the Mac skipper wasn’t to have the final word. That honour went to late substitute Marvin Brahoua, who played a neat one-two with John Boyce and dribbled past a defender before slotting home a calm finish with just seconds to go.
Colin Malone, the latest manager to succumb to this spirited amateur side, was quick to praise his opponents.
“I thought we were poor, but Immaculata fought more, they wanted it more, and they deserved the win,” he reflected.
“We would have liked to have kept going in this cup, but now our concentration is fully on our priority of the league.”
Gerard Smith: A great platform the rest of the team to rely on. 8
James Haughey: Delivery from crosses was superb. 8
Michael Fisher: Gave the opposition no time on the ball. 9
Daniel Largey: Threw himself into every challenge. 7
Sean McGovern: Effective at clearing the danger. 7
Colm O’Riordan: Didn’t give the ball away lightly, and calm from the spot. 8
Tony Heagney: Kept up with the game’s frantic tempo. 7
Gary Dorrian: Dismissal soured an otherwise decent display. 6
Padraig Adams: Pressed hard, but with little to show for it. 7
John Boyce: Work-rate was second to none. 8
Kevin McGovern: Sharp and alert. 9
Barry Baggley: On for K McGovern, 82
David McAllister: On for Adams, 88
Marvin Brahoua: On for McAllister, 103
Michael Goff: Extra time red card harmed his team’s chances. 6
Declan McVeigh: An outstanding display, in defence and supply. 9
Adam Rodgers: Not short on effort. 7
Stephen Hutchinson: A solid enough showing. 7
John Cochrane: Found good range with his passing. 7
Colm Rooney: Replaced too early to have any sort of a say. 5
Jason Rodgers: Put in a shift. 6
Dale Malone: An eye-catching performance, always involved. 8
Raymond Fitzpatrick: Won most headers, but could have found target more. 7
Josh Barton: Refused to let his head drop. 7
Chris Lavery: Nippy, tricky, a bit of a handful. 8
Conor Hagan: On for C Rooney, 25
Daniel Ryan: On for J Rodgers, 70
Niall Lavery: On for Cochrane, 82
Paddy Rooney: Not used
Conor McCorry: Not used
MAN OF THE MATCH: Michael Fisher (Immaculata). Had the right attitude and commitment needed to win this cup tie.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH: So many. But ultimately, it was how both teams respectively responded to being reduced to 10 men that decided this.
SAVE OF THE MATCH: Gerard Smith’s save from Dale Malone’s powerful 30-yard free kick in the second half.
BLOOPER OF THE MATCH: Celtic’s Josh Barton will be kicking himself after the effort he shot over the bar to finish Immaculata off at the end of normal time.