A late James Costello goal gave 10-man Rathfriland Rangers a vital three points in their battle to beat the drop with a 2-1 victory over St Patrick’s Young Men.
After their hearty performance against Dundonald the previous weekend ended in a cruel, narrow defeat, new Rangers boss Clifford Sterritt demanded his side raise their game against one of the league’s fancied clubs, and his players did not disappoint.
Darren McGrath put the Whites ahead, only for Raymond Spotswood to equalise for St Pat’s shortly afterwards, and Rathfriland were dealt another blow when Kevin Henry saw red after half-an-hour.
But Costello popped up moments from the finish to slam in the winner and give the Iveagh Park faithful something to cheer about after a long run of heavy defeats and flat displays.
Sterritt made wholesale changes to his starting 11, adding new signings Shane Harrison, Conor Larkin, Karl McVerry and Kevin Henry to the line-up.
The visitors, meanwhile, had somehow managed to lose their way to Iveagh Park, with five players ending up in Jonesborough instead, and so they began the game with only nine players on the field.
But despite the two-man advantage, the Whites couldn’t force an early goal and were unable to penetrate the St Pat’s backline and trouble the stand-in goalkeeper. After 20 minutes, however, the wanderers arrived and ironically it was when they then had their full compliment of 11 men on the field that Rathfriland nudged themselves ahead.
Costello’s ball in behind the defence was latched on to by McGrath who lobbed an effort over the onrushing Declan Burns and into the empty net. It was no less than the Whites deserved.
But within two minutes, St Pat’s were on par again. In an almost identical move, Michael Murray’s tantalising pass was met by Spotswood and he lifted the ball over Harrison for the leveller.
Moments later, just 30 minutes into his return to the club, Henry was dismissed when a high challenge on St Pat’s midfielder Joe Thompson sparked a 20-man melee near the touchline. With Rathfriland facing having to play more than two-thirds of the game without their influential Roy Keane-like enforcer, Sterritt shuffled his pack to a 4-4-1, with Lee Mackin taking on the lone-striker role.
From then on, chances were at a premium. St Pat’s defence was every bit as watertight as the home side’s and Ciaran McManus’s dipping 30-yard strike for the visitors was the only other effort of note in the first 45.
The second-half was every bit as evenly-balanced, and as play became stretched and more attritional, the majority of the game was contested in the air. Larkin and his central-defensive partner Philip Main were imperious, dealing with St Pat’s long balls with ease and winning virtually every aerial challenge, while at the other end the veteran centre-half Keith Mulvenna marshalled the Belfast side’s patrol equally well.
With a quarter-of-an-hour remaining, Sterritt switched McVerry from his unfamiliar winger role to his preferred position just off the frontman, and it paid dividends. Mackin and McVerry combined well together, matching the physicality of the St Pat’s defence and giving as good as they were getting.
With three minutes left on the clock, Costello, Mackin and McVerry surged forward on the counter-attack before linking up, and as McVerry drew Burns away from his line, he crossed low into the six-yard-box for Costello to apply the finish and clinch the victory.
The goal had been coming and was a credit to the battling spirit the Whites had shown, especially after playing for such a long spell a man down. Costello’s recent goal drought was at an end and the Rangers’ desperate thirst for league points was finally quenched.
But with a long way still to go before reaching safety, plenty more fighting spirit will be needed from Rathfriland over the next 12 games.
MOTM: Conor Larkin (Rathfriland Rangers).
RATHFRILAND: Harrison, Heslip, Larkin, Main, Baird, McVerry, Green, Henry, McGrath, Costello, Mackin. Subs: McCourt, Robb, Weir.