NIFL Championship – 14/04/23
By Phillip Bartlett
Hunter returns to haunt Annagh
McGuiness sees red as Hunter and Salley hit the target and Ards grab another useful 3 points.
Games come thick and fast at the business end of the season, Ards playing their 3rd game in 7 days as we go back on the road to the BGM Arena, Annagh United hosting the RABA in the 3rd post-split fixture. Ards have so far won 1 and lost 1 having scraped into the promotion group in the Championship in game 33, grinding out a hard fought 1-0 win just 3 days ago, playing in appalling conditions against second placed Warrenpoint. Annagh United, for most of the season, looked nailed on for that second placed promotion spot but a terrible run in the last couple of months saw them throw away their healthy lead and drop to 4th in the table, currently 6 points ahead of Ards in 5th. You have to go all the way back to the start of February for the last Annagh win, the hosts having only picked up 2 points in their last 9 games. Ards have had a better run of late, boasting 5 wins in the last 8 games, but won’t be focusing too much on recent records, rather focusing on their own performance with consistency being the problem for most of the season. We do hold the upper hand going into this one with 2 wins to Annagh’s 1, and that was stolen at the death with a 90+2 winner.
A great night at the BGM Arena for football, much better than Tuesdays torrential downpour
Ards have been running with a pretty thread bare squad the last couple of games through a mixture of injury, illness, and suspensions but tonight’s bench had a lot more depth than last time out as we welcome Cricky Crane and Ethan Taggart back into the squad. We field the same 11 that started Tuesday’s hard-fought win against Warrenpoint, having played just 3 days ago I’m sure we will look to the bench early enough in this one to ensure the energy and commitment levels are maintained. Alex Moore will be leading from the back once again, having taken a much-deserved MOTM award following Ards last home game of the season.
Two previous games between these sides ended 2-1 so it was not surprising that it was a similar outcome tonight, a close contest with some great action at either end, the only question being which side would come out on top. Ards ran out winners in the end, having to endure some heavy Annagh pressure towards the end of the game but managing to hold on for back-to-back wins post-split. The first half ended 1-1 despite going into time added at 0-0. An early injury to Ryan Moffatt meant there was significant additional time to play at the end of the first 45, 2 minutes into which Ards opened the scoring through Ross Hunter. With seconds on the clock, it looked like Ards would take that lead into the interval, but Ruairi McDonald had other ideas, Annagh going straight up the other end from the restart grabbing an equaliser within 30 seconds. The second half proved just as competitive, a single Adam Salley goal on the 78’ mark the difference between the two sides in the end. Annagh pressed for an equaliser as time ran on allowing Ards to spring on the counterattack, this ultimately leading to a Stephen McGuiness red card as he hauled Ross Hunter down having beaten the offside trap. With no cover, it was a certain red card. 2-1 down, seconds remaining, it was game over.
Much better conditions for football tonight but still a very scrappy start to the game the opening 10 minutes saw misplaced passes from both sides and very little composed football to talk about. There was a prolonged stoppage in the first minute as Annagh captain Moffatt was treated for an eye injury after clashing with Conor Scannell. An accidental coming together, nothing for the ref to be concerned with. In the opening minutes both goal keepers were virtual spectators, and not until the 11th minute when Annagh were awarded a corner did we see any goal mouth action. Even then it was a poor corner easily cleared by Jallow. Ards went straight up the other end earning a corner of their own, as C Scannell challenged Campbell to a high ball in the box. The lanky defender got there first clearing it over his own bar. The corner was sent in deep by E Scannell, Burns in the Annagh goal came and punched clear before dropping back to watch on as Murray’s follow up effort sailed over the bar. The first signs that a football game may indeed break out.
The half certainly changed for the better after the opening 15 or so turgid minutes. End to end action with chances aplenty, the best of which fell to E Scannell on 17’. The ball broke outside the box for Scannell to step on to and strike towards goal and strike he did! Standing right behind it, it was arrowing straight into the bottom right-hand corner before Burns dropped to his left and got a strong hand it to turn it round the post. Excellent effort on goal and a good stop to ensure it stayed goalless. That seemed to galvanise both teams and the chances kept coming. Annagh had a great chance a few minutes later for Gerard Storey, having been setup in the box by Smyth, he completely miskicked it allowing Ards to break up the other end. Hunter carried the ball wide right before darting into the box, his pass into the area looking for Salley in front of goal, but he couldn’t pick him out and Annagh were able to clear.
Ross Hunter scored a fantastic solo goal in time added on at the end of the first half against his old club to give Ards the lead.
Both sides continued to press for the opening goal of the game, Annagh United with the best of them on 39’ as Craig Taylor collected the ball just inside his own half. Jallow came across to cover but Taylor had the run on him and carried the ball all the way into the box, Jallow unable to keep up and seemingly giving up the chase. Taylor was allowed a free run into the box and with only Moore to beat he sent a rather tame shot towards the near post where Moore was able to collect rather easily. He was coming in at an angle but had plenty of goal to aim at towards the back post but opted for near side. Thankfully Moore was well positioned to make the save.
Just before the break Ards were awarded a trio of freekicks, moving ever closer to the goal, but neither Adam Salley nor Eamon Scannell were able to test the Annagh keeper. Moving into 3 mins of time added on at 0-0 no-one could have predicted how the next 180 seconds would play out. Seemingly heading in goalless Ross Hunter got himself an the end of an Alex Moore long ball up the field before running through on goal and sliding the ball beyond Burns into the back of the net. A great finish to open the scoring. Muted celebrations by the Ards front man having previously played for Annagh United at the BGM Arena, but fans and teammates were overjoyed having taken an unexpected lead. With 2 of the 3 mins of time added on played it looked like Ards would take their lead into the break, but this league never fails to surprise and just 30 seconds after the restart Annagh popped up with an equaliser through Ruairi McDonald. Ards were caught sleeping after opening the scoring, a long ball from Kerr in the right back position was headed on to McDonald in the box, he took one touch to control and take it inside Hamill before firing into the net past a helpless Moore. 1-1 with 48 mins played in the first half and two goals in 60 seconds. The ref had played the allocated amount of added on time and brought the game to a halt.
No changes for either side at the break as Ards get the game going again.
Ross Hunter was presented with a brilliant chance to restore Ards lead in the opening minute of the second half, a brilliant Adam Salley ball played between the Annagh lines picking out the wide mans run. He controlled the ball but couldn't sort his feet out to get the early shot away and was eventually crowded out as he tried to find space in the box to shoot. Hunter was again in the thick of it on 57’ looking to latch on to a ball played over the top. Jordan Campbell went to intercept the ball meeting it with his head but rather than send it back up the pitch he flicked it into Hunter’s path giving him an opportunity on goal. He had room to carry the ball across goal looking for an opening but by the time he took his shot Campbell had recovered his ground and made a challenge sending the ball out for an Ards corner. The corner amounted to nothing and Annagh cleared it up the far end.
Ards went as close as they had come to retaking their lead on 60’, Karl Hamill up from the back being denied by a brilliant Adam Glenny goal line clearance. Eamon Scannell had come across to the right to take the corner, Ross Hunter met the ball but couldn't direct it goalwards, instead it sat up perfectly for Hamill whose looping header was over the head of Burns, but Glenny had spotted the danger and dropped on to the line to make the clearance, much to the dismay of the travelling supporters. Annagh were still creating chances of their own and arguably should have taken the lead on 69’, substitute Scott McCullough doing well down the right before picking out Storey with a pinpoint cross. Storey was in plenty of space and had time to pick his spot, but his header was sent high over the bar. A lucky escape for Ards, he really should have hit the target given the circumstances.
Annagh’s subs were giving Ards some real cause for concern, the newly introduced Ryan Harpur going very close to giving his side the lead. An excellent strike some 35 yards from goal had to be tipped over the bar by the ever-alert Alex Moore. It looked like it was sneaking in under the bar and had to be stopped. Good football all round again. The decisive moment of the match came on 78’, Ards again taking the lead this time Adam Salley in the right place at the right time to turn the ball into the back of the net. Having scored against Annagh in the previous two games it was almost expected that the Championships top scorer would get on the sheet in this one. Salley actually began the move in the middle of the park, helping on a clearance by Moore. It fell to E Scannell who ran at the Annagh defence, turning them on the back foot. He got the better of his marker to hit the by-line before sending in a deep cross to the back post. Salley, having initially started the move, had sprinted into the box and found himself in the perfect position at the back post to finish before Burns or McGuiness could get across and make the block. Controlled finish at the back post, Ards with a 2-1 lead with about 10 mins to go.
Adam Salley adds to his already impressive goals tally for the season to give Ards the victory and all 3 points
With 10 mins to go Ards had to buckle in and put up with some quite persistent Annagh pressure in the final 3rd. With plenty of balls into the box, and several corners, Annagh were pressing but failed to really test Moore in the latter stages. Ards were happy to sit back and soak up the pressure hitting on the counter where possible. Into time added on at the end of the half they did just that, Hunter again getting the wrong side of the Annagh defence leading to a poor challenge by McGuiness that resulted in a red card. The only decision the ref could make. With the score 2-1, the home side now down to 10 men and time added on ticking down the game looked all but over, but Adam Salley still had a great chance to make certain on 90+2 and extend his tally. Picking the ball up in the box he got turned and hit a great shot across goal looking for the far corner, it looked like it was going in but again Burns was there to make another fantastic save this time getting down sharply to his right and getting a strong hand to it to take it away from goal.
The officials played an additional 4 minutes of time added on before finally bringing the game to an end, another hard fought 3 points for Ards to win back-to-back games for only the 4th time this season. With seemingly little to play for our recent results opens up a potential 4th place chase, Annagh now sitting only 3 points above us currently in that 4th place berth. Form of late makes for good reading having now won 6 games out of the last 9, losing only 2 of those. Great form but the lack of consistency will still be concerning.
Down to 2 games of the season left to run, both away from home, with Ballyclare next up. We’ve not had much success on the road to Dixon Park of late, but with the recent run of form on the up confidence should be high. The players will have a decent rest now with 8 days until the next fixture so hopefully injuries clear up and we’ll have a more populous squad to select from before the next game comes round.
A Moore, E Scannell, Murray, Hamill, Young, C Scannell, Cafolla, Steele, Hunter, Salley, Jallow
Shields, Hall, Arthurs, S Moore, Duckett, Taggart, Crane