Rangers rise to the occasion against league champions in cup

Rathfriland Rangers winger Darren McGrath with a golden chance to give his side a lead against Crusaders.
Rathfriland Rangers winger Darren McGrath with a golden chance to give his side a lead against Crusaders.

It wasn’t a win, nor was it even a draw, but on the biggest day in their history of more than half a century, Rathfriland Rangers stood up without a flicker of fear to the best club side in Northern Ireland and delivered.

Glamour ties do not come any bigger than Crusaders at Seaview in the Irish Cup, the country’s premier cup competition, but that’s what Rathfriland had earned and they rose to the occasion.

A day worth waiting for - Rathfriland Rangers line up for the biggest game of the club's history against Crusaders at Seaview.

A day worth waiting for - Rathfriland Rangers line up for the biggest game of the club's history against Crusaders at Seaview.

The result went the way of the Crues, the Irish Premiership champions and current league leaders, as everyone expected before the kick-off - goals from Diarmuid O’Carroll, Jordan Owens and Jordan Forsythe saw to that.

But manager Clifford Sterritt and his squad of 16 wrote their names into Rathfriland Football Club’s book of records with a brave display that many a top division side could learn a lesson from.

It’s one that will live long in the memory of the remarkable number of Whites supporters that descended on north Belfast for the day.

Sterritt had a full squad to choose from, while Crues boss Stephen Baxter, having watched his opponents the previous weekend and been suitably impressed, laid on a near full-strength 11.

Crusaders' Jordan Owens in action with Rathfriland's Conor Larkin. Pic: Presseye

Crusaders' Jordan Owens in action with Rathfriland's Conor Larkin. Pic: Presseye

While the Whites did not succumb to stage fright, a few nerves were evident in the first 10 minutes after the curtain rose at 3pm.

Crusaders carved out a trio of early chances as the Rangers found their feet, and Owens, searching for the goal that would make him the Crues’ all-time leading scorer, blazed the best of those high over the bar when he should have at least hit the target.

At the other end, Rathfriland’s first eye of goal was from a Ross Black free-kick, which curled narrowly wide from 30 yards.

As the clock ticked by and the game remained scoreless, the Whites grew in confidence.

Rathfriland's James Costello goes up against Davy Magowan. Pic: Presseye

Rathfriland's James Costello goes up against Davy Magowan. Pic: Presseye

Reaching 20 minutes without conceding had been the first target, and while the back four had done more than their fair share of the graft in the early exchanges, now Black and Jonathan Scannell in the middle were seeing much more of the ball.

A long ball from Black to lone frontman James Costello was taken down well under pressure from Crues left-back Craig McClean as Darren McGrath made a searing run into the box.

Costello’s slipped ball through was weighted perfectly to McGrath’s instep and a shock lead for the Whites was there to be taken.

But the winger could only find the side-netting and his side would pay for missing their opening only two minutes later.

Rathfriland's Ross Black challenges goal-scorer Diarmuid O'Carroll.

Rathfriland's Ross Black challenges goal-scorer Diarmuid O'Carroll.

McClean found O’Carroll on the edge of the Rathfriland box with a disguised pass, and the finish from the Crues winger was taken first-time from a tight angle, arrowed between the legs of ‘keeper Shane Harrison.

Before the game, you could have been forgiven for disbelieving the prospect of a 1-0 scoreline at the break, but Rathfriland had impressed and deserved to remain in the game with a fighting chance.

But within three minutes of the restart, their first-half exertions and the Crues’ superior passing and movement began to show.

A dangerous cross from Matthew Snoddy provided Owens with a two-yard tap-in for one of the easiest of his 158 club goals, taking him past the tally of 1990s legend Glenn Hunter.

Sustained pressure from the Hatchetmen continued, and after openings for Snoddy and Andrew Mitchell, Forsythe put them further ahead with a precise effort into the bottom corner on the hour.

Twice more the Crues had the ball in the Rathfriland net, from O’Carroll and Michael Carvill, but both were ruled out for offside.

Rathfriland's Ross Black. Pic: Presseye

Rathfriland's Ross Black. Pic: Presseye

At the death, Rathfriland had one final chance to get the goal they craved.

Costello, who worked tirelessly from the first minute to the last, lashed an effort from inside the area that looked bound for the net, but Crues veteran David Magowan appeared from nowhere to block the shot and preserve a clean sheet.

Baxter said his side’s second-half display was “as good as I’ve seen them for 10 years”, quite a statement given their recent successes, and for the Whites to only concede two in that time was an achievement in itself.

There was little expectation of a Rathfriland win - their 33/1 pre-match odds showed that.

But the spirit and effort they showed earned a rousing applause from both home and away support at the final whistle and meant they returned to the hill with heads held high.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Matthew Snoddy (Crusaders).

CRUSADERS: Graeme McKibben, Andrew Mitchell, David Magowan, Josh Robinson, Craig McClean, Jordan Forsythe, Declan Caddell, Matthew Snoddy, Diarmuid O’Carroll, Michael Carvill, Jordan Owens.

Subs: Timmy Adamson, Richard Clarke, Stephen O’Flynn, Gavin Whyte, Richard Vauls.

RATHFRILAND RANGERS: Shane Harrison, Chris Havern, Jonny Black, Conor Larkin, Aaron Black, Ross Black, Jonathan Scannell, Darren McGrath, Marty Havern, Ally Wilson, James Costello.

Subs: Nathan Baird, Lee Feeney, Conor Fegan. Mark Gracey, Thomas Lockhart.