Crumlin Star scored a major psychological blow against their potential title rivals Malachians with a 3-1 Clarence Cup victory over them on Saturday, yet winning manager Sean Brown is ruling out all possibility of his boys completing a league and cup double in their first ever Premier Division season.
The top flight debutants have continued to impress, following up the Border Cup, Clarence Cup, and Division 1A treble of the previous campaign, with extended runs in the Irish Cup (fifth round), Steel & Sons Cup (semi-final), and Border Cup (semi-final). This latest result has booked their place in round four of the Clarence.
Yet while Crumlin’s consistency in knockout competition has brought them to the very forefront of junior football, it may yet turn out to be their Achilles heel, having left them 11 league games behind current table-toppers Ards Rangers, with a 21-point gap to close.
Seasoned campaigners who have seen many a title hopeful come undone by such a backlog in the latter stages of the season may feel Crumlin have bitten off more than they can chew, and Brown who publicly echoes these views, is hopeful that fellow Amateur League clubs can come to their aid and help ease some of the pressure on them.
He said: “We have no chance of doing the double – there are just far too many games – but if that is the price you pay for winning as often as we do, then so be it.
“We have emailed the Amateur League for their help on this, and would appeal to any clubs who want to play us on a Wednesday night under the floodlights to get in touch.
“Today was a good result for us, but I’ve always said that it’s not always about the result, and it was pleasing to see the performance we put in too. It’s about getting the ball down and playing a bit of football, and I thought we were the only team who tried to do that today.”
In the visitors’ defence, the conditions were hardly conducive to free-flowing football, with the wintry weather playing havoc on yet another weekend of grassroots fixtures, but the 3G surface at the Cliff ensured this clash would always go ahead as planned.
Brown’s boys made full use of their home advantage, enjoying an early period of sustained pressure, with a curling effort from Francis Murphy, a back post header from Patrick O’Neill and a low drive from Murphy all putting Padraigh Magee to the test in the opening 20 minutes.
The Mals keeper was equal to all three, but a hand-ball by Michael Goodall midway through the half gave him a bigger problem, and though he guessed right, he was unable to prevent Barry McKervey’s powerful penalty from hitting the net.
Perhaps it was taking the visitors some time to adapt to the playing surface, but their chances to date had been minimal, and Mark McCourt’s shot wide from a Jerome McAtee pass was characteristic of their first half performance. The striker was also left disappointed when he skyed a 27 minute free kick from just outside the corner of the box.
Crumlin had claims for a second penalty on the half hour mark, when Ciaran Murphy went down under a Peter Corr challenge, and while the hosts might have felt aggrieved by the ‘soft’ nature of the earlier spot-kick they conceded, they were possibly relieved not to have given away another in this instance.
McCourt’s frustration continued after team-mate Gary Kelly was unable to get enough purchase on his through ball on 42 minutes, but the former did have reason to cheer soon after the restart, as he tucked away a penalty, following a clumsy Malachy Thompson foul on James Doyle.
In any other game, this could have been a major turning point, and it seemed to inject Mals with a renewed sense of positivity. Yet with an equally devastating sense of timing, Crumlin struck just nine minutes later to restore their lead.
The Malachians defence seemed to switch off momentarily, as Steven Brown fed the ball to Murphy, who slotted into the bottom right hand corner from close range.
The visitors had their chances to level the scores once again, but were simply unable to capitalise. A ball from Declan Hackett sent Doyle clean through, but under pressure from the Crumlin defence, he finished with a tame effort.
Arguably, substitute Micky Tohill was left in an even better position from a Doyle header only seconds after his introduction to the game, but miscued when it seemed easier to score.
Unfortunately for Malachians, that wasn’t to be the last of their errors. Even more costly was Magee’s spillage from an 86 minute McKervey free kick, which trickled in almost slow-motion behind him, when it should have been a routine save.
“Sometimes these things happen,” mused Malachians boss Gerry Goodall afterwards. “I really felt for him, because I didn’t feel it was a 3-1 game. I'd have been happier with 2-1.
“My thinking towards this competition was always ‘beat Crumlin Star, and you can go on to win it.’ They are the best side in it, and good luck to them.
“After taking over for the last six games of last season, this was always going to be a complete rebuilding process for us. Top four would be a brilliant achievement for us, but we won’t give up on the title either – we have played most of the top teams twice, and there are a good few games to go yet.”
Malachy Thompson: Only blot on his copybook was a carelessly conceded penalty. 7
Conor McDowell: Always there to cover any danger. 7
Philip Savage: Provided good service to the attackers. 8
Gary McIlernan: Unwavering in every challenge. 8
Paul Berne: A steady influence in the heart of defence. 8
Mark Mooney: Good tracking back and overall work-rate. 8
Steven Brown: A constant thorn in Malachians’ side. 8
Francis Murphy: Moved well, both on the ball and off it. 8
Patrick O’Neill: Used his aerial advantage to decent effect. 7
Ciaran Murphy: Had energy to burn, a relentless display. 8
Barry McKervey: His two goals were only the tip of the iceberg. 9
Paul Brown: On for McKervey, 80
Sean O’Reilly: Not used
Kevin Trainor: On for Murphy, 75
Padraigh Magee: Good distribution, but will have better days between the sticks. 6
Michael Goodall: Had a quiet game. 6
Cyrille Clavier: Made decent use of the left flank when he got the chance. 7
Declan Hackett: Beaten to the ball on several occasions. 6
Peter Corr: Threw everything into his tackles, sometimes too much. 6
Gary Kelly: A hard-working display all over the pitch. 7
Chris McCrory: Good tackling and all-round awareness. 7
Jerome McAtee: Mals’ standout man with mix of physicality and skill. 8
James Doyle: Did his best to unlock Crumlin defence to no avail. 7
Mark McCourt: Well-taken penalty the highlight of his display. 7
Ciaran Anderson:Unable to carve out many opportunities. 6
Paul Keenan: On for Anderson, 68
Danny Bell: On for McCourt, 76
Micky Tohill: On for Hackett, 77
MAN OF THE MATCH: Barry McKervey (Crumlin Star). His blend of skill and endeavour made this a truly stand-out performance
MOMENT OF THE MATCH: A fine four-man Crumlin counter-attack towards the end, which finished with the ball in the net, but was ruled offside – a questionable decision.
SAVE OF THE MATCH: Padraigh Magee’s first stop of the game, from a sweet curling attempt by Francis Murphy.
BLOOPER OF THE MATCH: Padraigh Magee will have been cursing himself all the way home for his unfortunate drop from the late free kick that made it 3-1.