Rathfriland Rangers exited the Intermediate Cup at the hands of Linfield Swifts on Saturday, with Blues striker Dale Patton netting a hat-trick in a display of ruthless finishing.
Swifts captain TJ Murray scored an early opener to set the visitors on their way, but Rathfriland could be proud that they were more-than-able to match their opponents for long periods of the game and battled to the finish.
Weakened by the absences of captain Stephen Hutchinson and in-form striker James Costello who was cup-tied, Rathfriland knew they faced a difficult task to upset the reserve side of the biggest club in Northern Ireland, and that was made all the harder when they gave away the opener just four minutes in.
Kieran McCourt’s attempted header back to goalkeeper Kieran Maguire didn’t have enough power and Murray stole in to tuck it home. It was clear that any mistakes would be punished.
After weathering a spell of attacks from Linfield in the first 20 minutes, the Whites began to find their way into the game. Forward Philip Main had his appeals for a penalty turned down after he was sent tumbling inside the box, while Darren McGrath had a powerful header saved right on the line.
But as the break was nearing, Linfield struck twice against the run of play to take the match away from Rathfriland in unforgiving fashion.
Turning a spell of intense pressure from Rathfriland into a Linfield attack, Swifts winger Sean Donnelly collected possession and began a mazy run into the final third, where Chris Begley took the ball and slipped Patton in for him to blast the ball past Maguire.
If Rathfriland thought they had been hard-done-by for that goal, the next was again typical of the luckless afternoon they were having. Right on 45 minutes, the Whites had a corner which was hoofed clear for Linfield’s quickest player Jonny Frazer to chase upfield. He beat Maguire to the ball and squared it to Patton who rolled it home to turn a Rathfriland attack into a Linfield goal in under 10 seconds.
In the second-half, Rathfriland had found the measure of their opponents and the two sides largely cancelled the other out. Johnny Kernaghan went close for the Whites with a long-range effort, while McGrath tested Swifts keeper Gareth Deane on three occasions.
Clear chances for the Blues in the second period had been rare, with only Calum Byers going close when his header was blocked on the line by Cathal Tumilty.
But on 84 minutes they showed their pace and quality once more when they hit Rathfriland on the counter-attack again. Donnelly sent Patton clear of the Rangers backline and he emphatically drilled the ball into the top corner to cap an impressive showing in front of goal.
Linfield were perhaps flattered by the scoreline, but their talented bunch of young footballers had too much for the Whites, who will be focusing on continuing their good league form against Crumlin United this weekend.
Man of the match: Sean Donnelly (Linfield Swifts).
RATHFRILAND RANGERS: Maguire, Murphy, McCourt, Sheekey, Bird, Kernaghan, McArdle, Lawless, Tumilty, Main, McGrath. Subs: Gilmore, Hollingsworth, Stewart.
LINFIELD SWIFTS: Dean, Devine, Parker, Byers, Murray, Frazer, Begley, Patton, Brown, Donnelly. Subs: Upritchard, Sofley, Neale, Craughwell.