A spirited comeback by Rathfriland Rangers from three goals down to Crumlin United fell just short as they suffered a second successive defeat and lost ground in their bid for a top-four finish.
After a narrow 1-0 away defeat to University of Ulster Jordanstown on Thursday night, the Whites were on the road to County Antrim again to face a side they had shared the spoils with in a thrilling 3-3 draw earlier in the campaign.
Within the opening 10 minutes, both sides spurned golden opportunities to grab a lead. First, Colum McComish drilled a shot over the bar when well-placed inside the Crumlin penalty area, while at the other end, McCafferty was left scratching his head after nodding wide of an empty net.
Crumlin stole the lead after 16 minutes when Rathfriland failed to properly clear a corner and McIlkenny struck from 20 yards to beat the unsighted Kieran Maguire.
The Rangers set about searching for an equaliser but the crucial final ball in their attacking moves always seemed to be lacking and unsuccessful free-kicks from Thomas Lockhart and then Wilson were as close as they came.
And they may have counted themselves fortunate to go in only one goal down when seven minutes before the break McCafferty struck the post after a beautifully-worked passing move with strike-partner Ian Brownless.
Within 10 minutes of the restart, however, Crumlin dealt the blows they had been been threatening, with McCafferty notching two goals in as many minutes.
Ferghal Burke stole McComish’s pass out of defence and the outstanding Brownless stepped over the through ball to allow McCafferty in behind the back four. His finish was as precise as it was cool, off the post and in.
While Rathfriland’s defending had been patchy at best for United’s first two goals, it was downright dreadful for their third. Crumlin broke rapidly and Brownless shook Aidan Sheekey off comfortably before laying on a pass for McCafferty to apply the touch to give their side what looked like an unassailable 3-0 lead.
But the Whites had other ideas and finally began showing the attacking intent they are renowned for. On 66 minutes, Ryan Evans whipped in a dangerous-and-inviting cross but Wilson couldn’t get enough on it, and moments later the tricky winger let fly from 25 yards only for Mark McKeown to repel the ball over the bar.
Despite feeling a touch of pressure, Crumlin were still quick to pounce on the counter-attack. Maguire had to make a terrific save to deny McCafferty his hat-trick and McComish made a goal-saving block from Brownless’ follow-up.
The home side did soon have the ball in the net for a fourth time but were rightly aggrieved when the referee deemed it offside incorrectly, and having escaped that scare, Rathfriland struck immediately. What could easily have been a four-goal deficit was cut to just two when Ryan Evans slotted past McKeown to give his side a flicker of hope.
Sensing panic in the Crumlin backline, Rathfriland pressed for another and Wilson’s free-kick right on the edge of the area was tipped over the top. And with six minutes left, he received a cross from Evans, twisted and turned inside the box as is his trademark and made space to fire into the top corner to make it 3-2.
But the fightback came too late and ran out of steam as the clock ticked towards 90, with Crumlin comfortably holding possession in the Rathfriland half and nullifying the danger of dropping two points.
CRUMLIN UNITED: McKeown, Mahoney, Docherty, McCullagh, McAllister, Burke, McIlkenny, Brownless, McCafferty, Longstaff. Subs: Wall, Gorman, Kelly.
RATHFRILAND RANGERS: Maguire, McComish, Sheekey, Coulter, Bird, Evans, Murphy, Lockhart, Weir, McGrath, Wilson. Subs: Gilmore, Reddish.