GILFORD returned to winning ways in this third round Marshall Cup tie against Blackers Mill as Richie Gartland grabbed the first hat-trick of his career to see of the opposition 3-1.
Gilford fielded their strongest team in some weeks, looking to put their sporadic form behind them and progress to the fourth round. Manager Stephen McArdle was a surprise addition to the team-sheet, as he pulled on the red and black jersey for the first time in five years. He was joined on the substitute’s bench by Sean Cunningham who made a welcome return after a brief sojourn with Banbridge AFC and Jon Lennon.
Crusaders set their stall out in the opening minutes when Stephen O’Hare had a header cleared off the line then Ruairi Feeney saw a great cross snapped up by the goalkeeper. Blackers Mill had their first chance of the game when a long ball was lofted over the fence but thankfully, for Gilford it came to nothing.
Played on a very heavy, tight pitch, on which neither the goal-posts or the centre circle lined up, the game could easily got very scrappy in midfield had it not been for the commanding presences of Scott Greenaway, Richie Gartland and Mark Feeney who all seemed to be able to receive and release the ball with great ease. With Ruairi Feeney, Mick Cunningham and Stephen Donaghy hassling the Blackers defence it wasn’t long before Gilford took the lead after some great chasing play from Mick Cunningham earned a corner. Stephen Donaghy hit a perfect corner over the penalty spot and Richie Gartland raised above everyone to bullet the ball into the net with a great header.
Blackers Mill still posed a viable threat and showed this when they broke up the pitch shortly after as a quick move saw a cross flash across the goal to go wide. A minute later Gilford were two up after a Seany McAlinden throw in from the right was played into the box by Mick Cunningham for Richie Gartland to hit it low on the turn. The ball seemed to take an age to cross the line as the keeper scrambled to reach it, but to no avail. 2-0 Gilford.
It was very much against the run of play that Blackers Mill grabbed a goal in the 30th minute. As the ball was played towards the Gilford area Pope called the ball, but Kieran McCourt went for the same ball and as it broke free the Blackers Mill forward stroked it into the net.
Gilford quickly regained control of the match and within eight minutes Richie Gartland grabbed his third of the game when Stephen Donaghy crossed from the left edge of the box and he again headed home.
Gilford retained possession for the rest of the half and saw in half time with their comfortable 3-1 lead.
After an extended half time break which gave Stephen McArdle the chance to urge his players to keep pushing forward it was expected that the score-line would increase in Gilford’s favour. Push forward they did and the pressure almost saw Richie Gartland increase his tally in the 59th minute when his thunderous shot from the edge of the box was blocked for a corner.
The Blackers Mill keeper never seemed comfortable coming off his line and the forwards tried their best to put him under pressure without managing to land the killer punch. Having run himself into the ground Stephen Donaghy was substituted in the 70th minute, being replaced by Wiggy. Lenny joined the fray shortly after when he replaced a clearly tired Mark Feeney.
The match now entered the dangerous phase which had seen Gilford lose unnecessary goals in previous matches as tired legs and complacency set in. Thankfully this did not happen and Gilford kept up the pressure. Wiggy was next to come close following a great ball in from Ruairi Feeney who, although he didn’t get on the score sheet, had a terrific game. Mick Cunningham then saw a net-bound shot cleared off the line after Wiggy switched the ball over to the right for Ruairi Feeney to swing the ball in.
It looked as if Ruairi Feeney would get himself on to the score-sheet when he broke from the halfway line and carried the ball into the box only to see the keeper make the best save of the match as he dived to his right to turn the ball out for a corner. The match then played out for the remaining minutes without either team creating anymore clear cut chances.