LION-HEARTED Rathfriland Rangers were left stunned after a late Crumlin Star goal consigned them to an agonising defeat in a pulsating Border Regiment Cup final at Seaview, writes Iain McDowell.
It took two moments of magic from Star’s mercurial left-winger Barry McKervy to crush the Whites’ hopes of their first major cup triumph in almost 35 years, as the men from the hill battled outstandingly against superior opposition.
The north Belfast side were the overwhelming favourites going into the tie, sitting one division above Rathfriland, and defending the title they had won for the first time last year.
But this was the biggest, most eagerly-anticipated day in the recent history of Rathfriland Football Club, and the Whites certainly weren’t willing to be intimidated by their opponent’s achievements.
A terrific recent run of form and a difficult route to the final, where they defeated four sides in higher league divisions, meant Rathfriland posed a serious threat to Crumlin Star.
Just six minutes in, however, and they were a goal down. Star’s PJ O’Neill was upended 20 yards from the Rathfriland goal, and McKervy curled the resulting free-kick low around the wall and found the bottom corner of the net with pinpoint accuracy.
In a fiery-tempered opening 15 minutes, both sides tried to stamp their authority on the game with a series of crunching challenges, but goalscoring opportunities were at a premium.
It wasn’t until the 20th minute that the first real chance from open play presented itself. After McKervy delivered a dangerous cross into the Rathfriland area, the ball found Francis Murphy and his attempted lob towards the far corner was tipped just over the bar by Rangers ‘keeper Shane Harrison, stretching full-length.
Rathfriland’s influential frontman Ally Wilson was a major doubt ahead of the game, suffering from broken ribs, but was deemed fit to start shortly before kick-off.
After 23 minutes, the gamble to play him paid dividends. His clever footwork inside the Star area flummoxed Paul McLarnon who tripped him, and referee Joe Watson awarded a penalty. Stevie Coulter stepped up and perfectly placed his kick past Mal Thompson’s dive to level the scores.
Wilson almost grabbed a goal of his own on the half-hour, heading a Johnny Jess corner on target, but Thompson palmed the effort clear. Jess lofted the loose ball back into the box, but it marginally evaded Wilson’s head after he had escaped his marker and the chance was gone.
Rathfriland looked the better side as time went on, and forced Star into surrendering possession all-too-easily, but the last two chances of the half fell to the Ardoyne men.
An excellent through-ball allowed O’Neill to break away from the Rathfriland defence, but he blasted over with his weaker left foot, and on the stroke of half-time another threatening McKervy free-kick from out wide was turned narrowly over the bar.
The second 45 began at a frenetic pace, and after a foul on Scott Ward on the edge of the 18-yard box, Ally Wilson sent the resulting set-piece just inches over the crossbar.
Three minutes later, a long ball over the Rathfriland back-line released Murphy, and his goal-bound volley was turned over by Harrison.
The young shot-stopper has made a number of superb saves in recent games, and he impressed yet again when he got a strong hand to keep out another precise McKervy dead-ball attempt from 25 yards.
The main stand at Seaview was packed with supporters who had made the journey from Rathfriland, outnumbering the Star following by at least two-to-one, and they were quick to spot the game’s most unsavoury moment which occurred just yards from the nearside touchline.
On 70 minutes, Whites centre-half Conor Larkin and Star’s imposing striker O’Neill were involved in an even aerial tussle on the halfway line, in which O’Neill felt Larkin had used his arm. He reacted by headbutting Larkin in full view of the referee, and received a straight red card. He wasn’t finished there, however, and confronted Rathfriand skipper Kevin Henry, attacking him in the same manner before being led down the tunnel as tempers began to erupt.
It was to be the game-changing moment. Down to ten men, Star raised the quality of their performance and took the attack to Rathfriland. McKervy had looked nervous ever since his early goal and was generally wasteful in possession, while former Cliftonville winger Murphy had been largely anonymous, but both displayed their class in the final twenty minutes.
With 16 minutes remaining, the two combined on the counter attack and Murphy’s terrific cross went just beyond the reach of McLarnon in front of goal. Moments later, Murphy danced around Rathfriland defenders inside the box before pulling the ball back to Kevin Trainor, who somehow side-footed high over the bar from eight yards out.
Star kept increasing the pressure, and finally broke Rathfriland’s resolve with ten minutes left on the clock.
Sean Brown, the Star manager, predicted last week that McKervy “could be deadly”, and so it proved. He skilfully beat two men on the left, and flighted a glorious ball into the corridor of uncertainty on the edge of the six-yard box. The industrious Mark Mooney nipped ahead of the Rathfriland defenders to nod home past Harrison, and wheeled away in delight with his shirt over his head.
It was to be the decisive, match-winning goal, and despite substitute Michael Green coming close to an equaliser when his attempted lob just cleared the bar, Star held on comfortably to retain their Border Cup crown.
Official man of the match: Mark Mooney (Crumlin Star)
Rathfriland Rangers line-up: Shane Harrison, Ally Evans, Conor Larkin, Stevie Coulter, Paul Evans, Ryan Evans, Scott Ward, Kevin Henry, Johnny Jess, Ally Beck, Ally Wilson. Subs: Paul Gibbons Michael Green, Ian Weir.
Crumlin Star line-up: Malachy Thompson, Connor McDowell, Ciaran Burns, Paul Berne, Philip Savage, Mark Mooney, Paul McLarnon, Kevin Trainor, Barry McKervy, Francis Murphy, PJ O’Neill. Subs: Paul Brown, Niall Hawkins, Ciaran Murphy.