Rathfriland Rangers climbed into third place in the Northern Amateur Football League Division 1A with a 2-0 win over a stubborn Wellington Rec at Iveagh Park on Saturday.
Darren McGrath’s first-half penalty and an outstanding solo goal from winger Ryan Evans handed the Whites another crucial three points as they entered the final month of the season looking to round off the current campaign on a high.
With Rathfriland missing the suspended Ally Wilson, Jason Gibson joined McGrath in leading the line and promising 19-year-old Kurt Murphy made his debut in the midfield.
In the early exchanges, Rathfriland showed their attacking intent but were unable to construct any meaningful opportunities.
And it was the Larne men who almost opened the scoring when John McAllister slid on to Sean Mulvenna’s cross after slipping in behind the home side’s back four but his effort was tame and straight at Kieran Maguire.
Thomas Lockhart’s first-time strike from the edge of the box was Rathfriland’s opening effort on goal but it cleared the crossbar with ease. For all their possession, the Rangers were unable to find a way to break Wellington down and were guilty more than once of overplaying and squandering the ball.
But McGrath, a constant thorn in the sides of opposition defenders throughout the year, was the man who made the breakthrough. He latched on to Gibson’s pinpoint through-ball but was hauled down as he attempted to round Wellington keeper Brendan Quinn and was awarded a penalty.
Quinn was fortunate to escape with a booking but the real punishment was the goal he conceded when McGrath sent him the wrong way with the spot-kick to give the Whites the advantage.
And just two minutes later, from Evans’s defence-splitting pass, the industrious McGrath showed his knack for beating opponents in a flash when he danced around two men before lashing a shot from a tight angle that struck the upright, just an inch from doubling his tally.
Evans was in the thick of it nine minutes later when his trickery helped him win a free-kick on the edge of the Wellington box. Lockhart whipped it around the wall and only Quinn’s diving save to claw the ball away kept the score to 1-0 at the break.
What Wellington had lacked badly in the opening 45 minutes was creativity, which went some way to explaining why they sit at the wrong end of the table, but they changed their approach after the break by putting their pace on the left flank to good use.
Zak McAllister was able to accelerate past Evans and McComish and laid on an excellent chance for Josh McAllister on 52 minutes, but the striker’s stinging shot was tipped over the bar by Maguire.
And Josh McAllister found himself in a similar position shortly after but chose the wrong option when he fired wildly over despite having team-mates in the middle who were better placed to finish.
Ian Weir replaced Gibson for Rathfriland and his pace up the left-wing gave Rathfriland a new attacking option. Twice he crossed low for McGrath but the Whites’ top scorer this season wasn’t able to convert either and he also saw a low shot from 18-yards tipped around the post.
While Rathfriland were the better side, their lack of a second goal meant their lead was by no means a comfortable one and it wasn’t until the 72nd minute that they lifted the nerves.
Evans, a veritable box of tricks, sold his marker a dummy by cleverly letting the ball run through his legs before spinning past him and ghosting around the keeper to roll the ball into the net. His goals may not be frequent but they do always have a touch of class about them.
At 2-0 Rathfriland could have taken their foot off the pedal but the second goal had the opposite effect and their attackers applied pressure to the pedal.
McGrath was first denied what looked like another clear penalty and he and Lockhart then began taking on the Wellington back four at will. Both should have scored when they found themselves in one-on-ones but Quinn made outstanding stops on both occasions.
Had it not been for Quinn’s efforts, the scoreline would have told a different story but nevertheless the win was Rathfriland’s, and an important one it was too, to set the tone one for the season’s final furlong with six games ahead in just 17 days.
MOTM: Darren McGrath.
RATHFRILAND RANGERS: Kieran Maguire, Colum McComish, Kieran McCourt, Aidan Sheekey, Brian Bird, Ryan Evans, Stevie Coulter, Kurt Murphy, Thomas Lockhart, Darren McGrath, Jason Gibson.
Subs: David Gilmore, Keith Megaw, Ian Weir.