AFTER 10 long years the wait is finally over as Gilford Crusaders have emerged 4-2 victors over Stranmillis in a thrilling Foster Cup Final.
The town made their presence felt as they filled the bigger of the two stands at Annagh United’s ground, with more lining the touch lines. The team looked resplendent in their club ties and received a boost when they were presented with a new kit, sponsored by The Castle Bar, sporting vertical stripes as opposed to the previous hoops.
Morale was lifted higher when it was announced that John Feeney would be a substitute, allowing the big man to end his career in a fitting manner, wearing his beloved red and black.
The teams had met twice previously in the league with Crusaders holding the advantage with a home win and a draw so anticipation was high that the cup could be secured.
Playing against a very strong wind, disaster struck in the third minute when Martin Savage just failed to stop a low drive from the edge of the box as Stranmillis took the lead. Left back Emmett Scullion then picked up Gilford’s only yellow card of the game, leaving him walking a tightrope but not stopping him from challenging hard.
Gilford were struggling against the wind and some harsh challenges from the opposition until the 20th minute when Ruairi Feeney played Conor Magee through to level the match.
Stranmillis then picked up the first of four bookings just before they broke through the middle of the defensive team of Kieran McCourt and Rony Barry to slot home another well struck shot.
Ruairi Feeney was put through to score in the 45th minute only to see the referee disallow the goal as he called a free-kick as the ball crossed the line. Mark Feeney then curled his free kick round the defensive wall and Ryan McDowell ran in in to level the game as the goalkeeper stopped but failed to hold Mark’s initial strike.
The managers let the boys do the talking in the dressing room as they encouraged each other to go out and win this match. Although Stranmillis did create some chances in the second half they now had to cope with the wind and a reinvigorated Gilford team.
Paddy Finnegan replaced Scullion in 61 minutes to prevent a further booking and bring some fresh legs to the game. The boys pushed and probed, looking for an opening which came in the 77th minute when they won a free kick at the edge of the penalty box. Manager Stephen McArdle received some strange looks when he shouted that Ryan McDowell should hit the free kick, but these were changed when he struck it perfectly to give Gilford the lead for the first time, and send everyone wild.
Jon Lennon then replaced a tiring Conor Magee for the last 10 minutes as Gilford sought to close the doors on a Stranmillis comeback. Martin Savage then kept Crusaders in the game when he somehow managed to get down to his right post to stop a net bound strike.
The final nail in Stranmillis’ coffin was driven in by Ruairi Feeney two minutes from time when he latched on to a ball from Stephen Donaghey to lob the oncoming keeper and ensure that the silverware would be coming home to Gilford.
Mick Cunningham replaced goal hero Ryan McDowell immediately after the goal and, as the gathered crowd started singing for John Feeney, the referee blew for full time sending the crowd and the team wild.
As the players and team officials congratulated each other and their valiant opposition, manager Stephen McArdle cut a solitary, but happy, figure as he sat in the dug-out reflecting on a job well done.
So, came the presentation of the trophy and medals. Gilford to a man applauded as Stranmillis collected their runners up medals before taking centre stage to collect their spoils. Captain Kieran McCourt and the man he took over from, the legend that is John Feeney, brought the biggest cheer of the night as they jointly lifted the impressive Foster Cup over their heads. The first part of the journey was completed, now the festivities commenced.
A big thank you must go to the players, officials and supporters of Stranmillis for providing stern opposition, their fulsome praise and their best wishes for our last game of the season. More than one commented that they had thoroughly enjoyed all of the meetings this season. In return we would like to wish them well for the future.
A big thank you must also go to the crowd for their vocal and much appreciated support on this historic occasion.
The team have one league fixture remaining, away against Tullyvallen on May 12. Victory in this final match would see Gilford promoted to the first division and bring even more glory to a team which has already achieved so much in one season.