TWO goals by star striker Ally Wilson were not enough to prevent Rathfriland Rangers from slipping to a disappointing and potentially damaging away defeat to Rathfern Rangers, writes Iain McDowell.
Even with several key players missing from the starting line-up, the Whites travelled to the Newtonabbey side as favourites to win, with only one league defeat this season.
There were no clear-cut chances in the first half-hour, but Rathfriland took the lead when Ally Wilson struck a left-footed shot from 22 yards. His strike partner Kyle Heslip seized on a loose ball in the middle of the park and fed Wilson, his low shot finding the far bottom corner.
Shortly after the second-half began, Rathfriland doubled their lead. The hardworking Heslip was fouled on the right-hand side of the Rathfern area after a strong forward run. Michael Green’s superb delivery from the set-piece was flicked on by Heslip at the front post and found Wilson at the back, who powered in the header in from three yards out.
As the rain fell and made conditions difficult, Rathfern’s David McIlroy dragged his side back into the game with an opportunistic effort from the half-way line. He tried his luck after seeing Rathfriland goalkeeper Shane Harrison off his line, and the ball floated into the net to reduce the deficit.
On 62 minutes, McIlroy levelled scores with a solid header from a Rathfern corner. The ball was drilled in and the tall midfielder rose highest to score from eight yards.
As players on both sides tired, the game opened up and Green broke free for Rathfriland after Harrison cleared another Rathfern corner. With a three-on-three, Green played Wilson through, and with only the ‘keeper to beat his shot pinged back off the upright, denying him a hat-trick.
The miss proved to be a costly one. Just five minutes later, the ball dribbled towards Harrison in the Rathfriland goal, and as he went to collect it, it stopped dead on the sodden pitch, allowing Rathfern’s David Moore to nip in and poke the ball into the net, making the score 3-2 to the home side.
The final twenty minutes saw Rathfriland apply constant pressure to Rathfern, but to no avail. Wilson curled a free-kick from the edge of the area on 78 minutes, but it went narrowly wide, and a drilled set-piece from Stevie Coulter two minutes from time looked bound for the top corner, but Neill Lovell in the Rathfern goal tipped it over the woodwork.
The game finished 3-2 to Rathfern, who top the Division 1B table, but have played eight games more than Rathfriland.
Rathfriland Rangers line-up: Shane Harrison, Ally Evans, Conor Larkin, Decky Allister, Ian Weir, Michael Green, Stevie Coulter, Adrian Megaw, Tim Sexton, Kyle Heslip, Ally Wilson. Subs: Paul Gibbons, Colum McComish, Alan Murray.