COMING into this Foster Cup Semi Final against Tullyvallen, off of the back of an unbeaten run which stretched back to January 14, the Gilford boys were confident but cautious as kick off approached.
Only one change was made to the squad from last week with Mark Feeney resuming his midfield role following suspension. The team observed a minutes silence prior to kick off as a mark of respect for the passing of Paddy McAtamney who tragically died, aged 32, earlier this week.
In front of the biggest crowd of the season Gilford started the game well with good play down the wings and exceptionally long kick-outs from Martin Savage putting the Tullyvallen defence pressure. In the fourth minute a great pass from Stephen Donaghy put Ruairi Feeney through only for the shot to go just wide of the post. The match continued this way until the 13th minute when Tullyvallen broke away and fired in a shot from 25 yards, from a rebound, which the Crusaders keeper was helpless to stop.
The well-deserved equaliser finally arrived in 28 minutes when McDowell set off on a great run down the right wing, he played the ball through to Ruairi, with a defence splitting pass, and he squared the ball for Scott Greenaway to coolly slot it home.
The first real chance of the second half came when Donaghy beat the offside trap only to see his 51st minute strike knocked on to the post and out for a corner.
It was very much against the run of play that Tullyvallen showed their fighting spirit to grab the lead with another well taken goal in 77 minutes which lifted them and left Gilford rueing missed chances. However, parity was restored within 4 minutes when Donaghy was hacked down in the box and Ruairi Feeney blasted the penalty home.
Although not short on incident, the preceding 85 minutes were totally overshadowed by the tumultuous events of the last 5 of regulation play. Tullyvallen regained the lead and the upper-hand with another great 25 yard drive.
In what would prove to be a very decisive move Conor Magee replaced Sean Cunningham in attack. Magee was put through with only the keeper to beat when the keeper brought him down just outside the box and received a red card for his troubles. Gilford piled on the pressure, even sending Savage up for a corner as time ticked away and another cup exit seemed to be on the cards. The second biggest roar of the day erupted in the last minute as Ruairi Feeney rose above the crowded box to power a header past the stranded Tullyvallen replacement keeper to send the match into extra time and the crowd wild.
Alas it was not to be and the referee blew the final whistle to take the most exciting match of the season to even greater heights.
With the decision made as to who the penalty takers would be, and every nominee confident of their ability to handle the task, the greatest pressure was on Martin Savage, who would face off against the oppositions penalty takers alone. Tullyvallen won the toss and decided to go first hoping that this advantage would pressurise one of the Gilford men into making a mistake.
Tullyvallen scored their first with Rony Barry equalising for the home team. Savage then smothered the second penalty fired at him before Mark Feeney thundered his into the right of the net to give Gilford the advantage. Savage correctly anticipated the third strike enabling Captain Kieran McCourt to coolly stroke his effort into the net. Now came the crucial penalty for Tullyvallen a goal would keep their hopes alive whilst a miss would see their cup dreams end. Surely Savage couldn’t save a third to bring this incredible game to a close, could he?
As the crowd of over a hundred held their breath, along with the players and management of both teams, the big man collected himself before diving to his right to save his 3rd penalty of the day, sending his team-mates and supporters into ecstasy as they rushed to bury him under a sea of bodies.
Gilford Crusaders would like to thank Mr Brian Lyness of the First and last who very kindly sponsored the Semi Final match and the match ball..
The Foster Cup final will take place on the evening of Thursday 26th of April,(date TBC) at Annagh Utd’s ground, against Stranmillis who saw off Portadown BBOB in the other semi-final.
The next league match is against Tullyvallen, at home, on Saturday April 7.