Ards Rangers did their best to slow down Crumlin Star’s potential procession to a first Premier Division title by winning the first of two meetings between the pair in as many weeks.
The Drome Park men are currently top of the heap, but with Drumaness Mills and Nortel chasing with games in hand, and Star in the best position of all, with a massive seven game advantage to cut down Rangers’ 11-point lead over them, it appears Saturday’s winners are running out of time, with just three games left.
It has left winning manager Lee Forsythe admitting that even another victory against the same opponents this Saturday will most likely only delay the inevitable – although he would dearly love his side to finish his season with a winning run, capped off with the Clarence Cup.
He stressed: “Listen, I said before today, even if we were to win our remaining games, we don’t have enough games left to win the league. That’s not just talk – that’s a fact. Crumlin Star can afford to lose four or five games and still win the league, but from that performance today, I don’t think they’ll drop anywhere near that many points.
“Our last league game is on April 26, so getting to the semi-final of the Clarence Cup is helping to keep our season alive. I don’t think you’d have seen as much of a battle from us today if we hadn’t done that, but now we want to finish as high as we can.
“We have shown today we can beat them, so why not again next week?”
As it happened, the crucial moment of this game arrived after just five minutes. Johnny Roy delivered a corner into a crowded Crumlin box, and Ryan Newberry got a foot to the ball first, to smash into the net from close quarters.
It was just what the hosts’ bright start had warranted, but Crumlin were almost level when a dangerous ball from Barry McKervey was whipped in towards Ciaran Murray, but the assured David Harrison bounded off his line to cut out with confidence.
Maintaining his appetite for goals, Murray had the ball in the net midway through the half, but it was ruled offside. This was to be a running theme in the first 45 minutes.
Soon after this, Willy McBurney mistakenly passed to Murray, who chose to shoot rather than square to Patrick O’Neill. However the towering front-man looked to have got his chance after all when Harrison palmed Murray’s effort out to him, but Sammy Wallace denied him with a timely sliding challenge, just as he was shaping to shoot.
On the half hour mark, Jonny Roy collected the ball from Daryll Kernohan, but his eventual shot was tipped away by Malachy Thompson, while Gary Sharratt followed up with a shot into the side-netting.
Rangers looked well-organised at the back, and when Murray and, minutes later, Steven Brown were both caught offside it almost appeared that Crumlin were too quick off the mark for their own good.
The visitors almost had some joy with a set-piece on the brink of half-time, but McKervey’s tremendous bending effort past the wall was equalled by an excellent diving save from Harrison.
The second half had much fewer clear-cut opportunities, but lost nothing of the intensity or heart that made it such an absorbing contest to watch.
Crumlin continued to search for a leveller, and O’Neill was left kicking himself for heading over from a Murray cross on a blistering counter-attack, but in truth, the pass may have been over-hit.
Rangers had an even better opportunity in the 56th minute, when Jonny Roy accepted the ball from Kernohan and rounded the keeper before shooting, but Gary McKernan stretched a leg out to somehow keep it from crossing the line.
Jonny Roy was instrumental again in the closing ten minutes, but none of the four opportunities he got in quick succession found the target; one wide, one blocked by a Conor McDowell header, another saved well by the keeper at his near post, and a cross which clipped the crossbar.
However, much to his relief, and that of his team-mates, Crumlin never managed to find the equaliser they craved, even though they came close with a late Francis Murphy drive, which had all its sting taken out by a defensive block.
Nevertheless, Crumlin boss Sean Brown still wore a smile on his face at the final whistle, and doesn’t seem overly vexed about meeting the team they beat in last season’s Clarence Cup final on their own turf this Saturday.
He stated: “From what I have seen today, I still think we are the best team in this league. That isn’t sour grapes – it is just that we try to play football and express ourselves.
“Today isn’t going to decide any titles, just as the next game against Ards Rangers won’t either. We got two big wins in the week, against Drumaness and Nortel, and we have another two important games against Shankill and Dunmurry this week.
“If we keep picking up points, then who knows? All I know is that there is a way to go yet.”
MAN OF THE MATCH: Jonny Roy (Ards Rangers) Seemed to be involved at every turn, but didn’t get the goal he probably deserved.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH: The one which separated the two sides – Ryan Newberry’s instinctive fifth minute strike.
SAVE OF THE MATCH: Gary McKernan appeared to arrive from nowhere as he got to the line to clear away Jonny Roy’s goal-bound shot on 56 minutes.
BLOOPER OF THE MATCH: Not many individual errors, but Crumlin’s regret will be not sending out a statement to the league leaders. They meet again on Saturday.
David Harrison: Had an impressive, steady game. 8
Sammy Wallace: Focused and full-blooded. 8
Marc Roy: Hardly gave his opponents an inch. 8
Gary Brown: A tidy enough effort. 7
Jamie Patterson: An eye-catching defensive showing. 8
Willy McBurney: Showed his commitment in every challenge. 8
Jonny Roy: Passing and pressing were big assets to his team. 8
Ryan Newberry: Displayed his talent in flashes, and got the crucial goal. 8
Daryll Kernohan: Kept chipping away, but with nothing to show for it. 7
Ricky Rutherford: Made his presence felt in the final third. 7
Gary Sharratt: Work-rate unrivalled anywhere on the pitch. 8
Jordan Lucas: On for Kernohan, 90
John Kerr: Not used
Neill Melville: On for Sharratt, 87
Malachy Thompson: Goal conceded was his only blip. 7
Conor McDowell: Not short on effort. 7
Philip Savage: Provided some decent service to the forward line. 7
Gary McKernan: Kept things tight and made an excellent clearance. 8
Paul Berne: Stood firm in moments of pressure. 8
Paul McLarnon: Won the ball well for his team. 8
Kevin Trainor: Had a relatively quiet game. 6
Mark Mooney: Injury gave him just 17 minutes of action. 6
Patrick O’Neill: Strong, physical display. 7
Ciaran Murray: Pace marked him out as a real threat. 8
Barry McKervey: Good close control when on the ball. 8
Paul Brown: On for McKervey, 83
Francis Murphy: On for O’Neill, 60
Steven Brown: On for Mooney, 17