Banbridge Hockey Club Men’s First XI survived a real scare to make it seven league wins from seven on Saturday, another hat-trick from Stevie Dowds securing the victory.
They hosted Annadale at Havelock Park and, in a comparatively modest scoreline, edged the match 3-2, all the goals coming in the first half.
It keeps Bann three points clear of their nearest challengers at the top of the Ulster Premier League table. Instonians are second, although they’ve played a game more. Bann’s likely title rivals Lisnagarvey are back in fifth spot with two games in hand, although they’ve lost to Bann and slipped up against Cookstown so far.
That means, for now, the locals are in the driving seat.
They were left wiping the sweat from their brows on Saturday evening though as fourth place Annadale pushed them all the way.
It was the visitors who won the first penalty corner of the game but when it turned out to be fruitless, Banbridge weren’t slow in punishing the missed chance.
In their second penalty corner of the game, Stevie Dowds slammed in the opener for Banbridge.
That was his 46th goal of a quite stunning season and his 47th didn’t take long in following up. It flew into the net care of a fierce reverse from the edge of the area.
As if that wasn’t good enough, Bann skipper Eugene Magee and his brother Owen were both on the field for Bann for the first time this season. The injury worries are beginning to ease for Bann boss Mark Tumilty but Banbridge couldn’t afford to be mulling over that thought.
Annadale certainly weren’t out of it, even at 2-0 down and a quick break from Matty Allister put them on the front foot.
They managed to earn a couple of penalty corners in succession and made their pressure pay by converting only the 10th league goal Bann had conceded this year from a direct flick.
After Eugene Magee did well to earn another Bann corner, Matthew Bell hit his effort over the bar. From the next corner, Dowds again took over the striking duties and made no mistake, securing his hat-trick with another well hit effort.
That put daylight between the sides again but Annadale weren’t up for making it an easy afternoon for the title chasers.
They managed to peg another goal back before the break when a defensive error let them in to convert.
That was to make the second half a rather nervy affair although Bann began it brightly. They forced another couple of corners but the keeper and the post held the hosts out.
Annadale, then, were still well in with a chance of ruffling a few feathers and Gareth Lennox had to be at his best to deny a penalty corner.
Birthday boy Fraser Mills won another for Bann but it wasn’t diverted home, neither was a tantalising Eugene Magee cross soon after,
It was squeaky bum time for Bann late on as Annadale forced two last minute penalty corners but, whilst that was to be the Ladies’ undoing earlier in the day, the men held out to secure yet another league victory.
Nonetheless, it was perhaps a wake-up call for Banbridge, who can’t afford to think the league title is already wrapped up with Garvey falling behind.
Any slips and the race will be blown wide open again.
They’ll be hoping they can avoid that this weekend when Banbridge travel to face strugglers NICS, who have won just one of their opening seven league games.
They’re third bottom in the current Premier League table and Bann will see this one as a chance to further enhance their +28 goal difference as well as putting themselves three points closer to nicking the Ulster Premier League title back from the Garvey grasp.