TOP BILLING FOR RICKY
Steel and Sons Cup Final - Ards 2 v 1 Carrick Rangers
at Seaview, Belfast - Thursday 25th December 2008
By Adrian Monaghan
Ricky Billing’s time at Ards was somewhat brief, his first team appearances were few, and this, for the most part, could be attributed to a dodgy left knee which constantly gave him gip. Reminiscing almost four years later he recalled his frustration at the time:
“As an eighteen or nineteen-year-old I dislocated my left kneecap and it always gave me bother after that, what with wear and tear and everything. I had actually contemplated retiring before the final, but Tommy Kincaid talked me out of it and sent me on loan to my old club Shankill United to get me back in shape. I came back after a month as Tommy wanted me on the bench for the final to give him attacking options.”
The problems with his left knee continued to give him grief and Ricky eventually called it a day. It was with another part of his anatomy though that he wrote his name into the history books, his right thigh! It was with this particular part of his body that Ricky connected with a looping Darren Fitzgerald cross, deep into stoppage time, to send the ball over Gregg Shannon’s head to bring the Steel and Sons Cup home to Newtownards for the very first time.
Ricky recounted some years later:
“I will never ever forget the 2008 Steel and Sons final as it definitely rates as the pinnacle of my career. It was a great finish to my playing days, as this game was basically one of my last in an Ards shirt and it made it easier to hang the boots up and sweetened the disappointment of having to retire at the time.”
Ricky’s last gasp winner came as no surprise to any of the many Ards supporters in the ground who believed that it was their destiny to win this trophy. This belief can be traced back to late October 2008, when manager Tommy Kincaid’s wife Kate tragically passed away at a young age. United in grief, the players, backroom staff, directors and supporters were all galvanised in support of Tommy, and the winning of this trophy was a fitting tribute to them both.
On a crisp winter morning Ards got off to the worst possible start as Carrick Rangers took the lead after just eight minutes. Talented Carrick striker James Costello dropped the shoulder one way but went the other, leaving two Ards defenders totally wrong-footed. The big front man then fired off a ferocious shot that Ards keeper Andy McDonald did well to parry, but unfortunately for Darren Nixon, the deflected loose ball bounced off him as he ran in to cover and rolled into the net.
As Ards took their time to settle, Costello nearly made it 2-0 to the Rangers on twelve minutes, but his sharp effort was cleared away by Nixon. After this scare Ards seemed to settle down and started taking the game to their opponents, as at last we saw some of the fluent football that had taken them to the final.
Ards should have equalised five minutes later when Paul Dickson found Darren Fitzgerald down the right with a delightful pass. Fitzgerald made a bit of room and delivered a pinpoint cross for the inrushing Darren Stirling, who fired wide with the goalkeeper beaten.
Carrick were now on the back foot as James Wright and Jimmy McIlhagga started taking control of the middle of the park. Stirling had another great opportunity to level matters on twenty one minutes when he was played in by Nixon, a crack at goal or a square ball to Fitzgerald were both on, but Stirling decided on neither and instead chipped the ball aimlessly into no man’s land.
Ards got the equaliser their play deserved on twenty seven minutes. Kris Pike swung in a tantalising ball from a corner kick that Carrick had conceded cheaply. ‘Man of the Match’ Darren Fitzgerald rose highest at the back post to force Shannon into an instinctive save but James Wilson was first to react and nodded in from close range.
It was total Ards domination until the interval and they should have gone into the lead on thirty two minutes, but McIlhagga, unchallenged, headed Wright’s corner over the crossbar with Shannon nowhere to be seen. Ards had a few more half chances before the break but they could not add to their score and Carrick were mighty relieved to find some respite when the referee blew for half-time.
Carrick manager Stephen Small must have given his charges one hell of a team talk as his side emerged from the dressing rooms totally transformed. It was Carrick who now wrestled control of the midfield as Ards found themselves second to every ball.
Costello, by far Carrick’s main threat, had a good opportunity midway through the new half but McDonald dealt comfortably with his effort. Full back Mark Watson had another sharp chance for Carrick a few minutes later, but once again McDonald was equal to the task by saving to his right.
Carrick were looking the team most likely to score but ever so slowly Ards started to get back into their stride again. Although there was little fluency in their movement, they did at least start closing their opponents down, and as a result the game became a bit scrappy.
As the game entered the last five minutes of scheduled time, two defining twists in the plot were to unfold. The first, with eighty six minutes on the clock, involved Carrick and James Costello. Pedro Delgado played a clever ball over the top of the Ards defence that Costello latched on to, but he failed to get the ball under proper control and fired wide when a goal looked a distinct possibility. A goal at this stage would surely have been curtains for Ards.
The other key moment arrived with one minute remaining, and that was when Richard Billing came on for winger Craig McMillen, and simultaneously the PA announced that there would be five added minutes of stoppage time.
As the clock hand moved towards the seemingly inevitable extra time, David Cully found Darren Fitzgerald with a short pass. Fitzgerald advanced down the right hand flank and noticed Billing steaming in to the box. ‘Mucker’ sent in a teasing cross that was met by Ricky’s thigh and the ball spun high and mighty over the outstretched Shannon before dropping in just under the crossbar. The Ards support were in raptures, Carrick fans were gobsmacked, and the many neutrals were relieved that their Christmas dinners were saved from going into the dog.
Ards- A.McDonald, D.Cully, K.Pike, D.Nixon, J.Wilson, C.McMillen, P.Dickson, J.Wright, J.McIlhagga, D.Stirling, D.Fitzgerald. Subs- K.McCleery for Wright, R.Billing for McMillen and T.Gorman for Stirling.
Carrick Rangers- G.Shannon, M.Watson, C.Wilkinson, D.McNamee, P.Prenter, J.Van Matre, G.Taggart, P.Delgado, J.Costello, K.McDowell, O. Okanaiya. Subs- J.Braniff and McAlea for Prenter and Van Matre and M.McClelland for Okanaiya.
Referee- Mr. Mervyn Smyth (Ballymena).