NIFL Playr-Fit Championship – 25/11/23
By Phillip Bartlett
Ards to the Four!
Ards on the climb after recent change of fortunes
A recent upturn in form has seen Ards go unbeaten in the last 3 league meetings, grabbing two impressive victories on the road and a rather under par draw at home to Knockbreda. Promotion chasing Dundela are in ‘City’ this week as we look to carry on this run of form while hoping to improve our rather poor home record, having not won at Clandeboye Park since way back in September when we ran out 4-2 winners against fellow strugglers Dergview. Heading into the weekend Dundela were sitting top of the league by virtue of their goal difference but dropped down to 3rd following the 2 Friday night fixtures so they will be coming in looking to reclaim their top spot. Ards faced off against Dundela back in September in the reverse fixture at Wilgar Park taking a 1-0 win and 3 points home with Adam McCallum grabbing the winning goal. A repeat of that result would be richly accepted, but expectations among supporters are somewhat muted given the inconsistent nature of previous results. Last weeks performance, both in attack and in defence, will have given some cause for hope as we know this team is much better than the results would suggest. The visitors this weekend have won 5 and drawn 1 in their last 6 fixtures so another tough game in prospect.
Can’t change a winning team they say, and we’re in the fortunate position where we don’t have to this week as all those that featured in that impressive 3-0 win last week are fit and available for selection. There is even better news on the bench as we are able to field a full squad this week with goalkeeper Neil Shields and defender Adam McCallum both returning from injury, while reserve team player Finlay Bayliss is called up to the first team squad for the first time. Whether the system utilised last week was intentional or landed upon due to necessity it certainly worked out for all concerned and it was a similar formation today where we lined up with 3 across the defensive line ably covered by the imperious Moore in between the sticks. The 2 Scannell boys spanned the pitch continuing their role as either side wingbacks. The energy and work rate in the middle of the park provided by Cafolla, Steele and Taggart gives both cover to the back line while creating opportunities for the forwards. Hunter and Dougan partner up top, a combination of Hunters pace and Dougans eye for goal standing us in good stead. Plenty of familiar faces in the opposing squad today with no fewer than 4 ex Ards men representing the Duns in this one with Ex Ards captain Jamie McGovern at centre half and Michael Kerr named at right back while Jake Corbet and Sam Dinu are named on the bench.
Starting line up for Ards
Déjà vu for the RABA this week as we once again saw Ards FC run into an unexpected first half 3-0 lead. While not as one sided as the opening 45 minutes last week, Ards were just as clinical with their finishing on the back of some well worked build up play. Dougan got us off and running converting from the penalty spot on 11’ having been felled by Duns keeper Lewis Hunter after some concerted pressure by the home team. That was followed up 10 mins later as Eamon Scannell did well to get on the end of an Ards cross at the back post and squeeze the ball in to put Ards 2-0 up just after the 20-minute mark. The Duns weren’t without their chances in the first half but a combination of solid Ards defending and wastefulness by the visitors ensured Ards maintained their clean sheet. Things went from good to better for Ards as Connor Maxwell scored the goal of the game from a free kick some 35 yards from goal. It was just left of the goal and was destined for the top corner as soon as it left his boot. A great strike indeed, nothing Hunter could do in the Duns goal to stop that one as it hit the postage stamp corner. 3-0 at the break, running in parallel to last weeks game. Second half, very much as was last week, we expected a response, and the Duns did just that early on. As was last week, Ards remained solid and resolute at the back, dealing with everything the Duns threw at them in those opening moments before they settled the game once and for all, Ross Hunter putting the game beyond doubt as he grabbed a 4th Ards goal on 66’, slipping the ball under the advancing Lewis Hunter and into the back of the net. That was it as far as the scoring was concerned, another fabulous victory for Ards, 4-0 the final score after 4 mins of time added on were complete.
Early signs were not overly positive for the home side as the Duns got on the front foot early on looking to catch Ards napping in the opening minutes. Early ball swung into the box where it ping-ponged around a bit before Ards finally got a telling boot on it to clear. It was a nervy start but Ards soon settled into the game getting their foot on the ball and looking to get out from men into the game. Ross Hunter the recipient of some great build up play as Dougan dropped a bit deeper to win the ball on the right, immediately played into Taggart inside the middle. It was quick play by Ards as Taggart slid the ball through to Hunter, taking out the entire Duns back line, but the run was early and the offside flag rightly up pulling the move back. Bit of back and forth followed as Burns effort on the Ards goal got Moore involved, an easy take in the middle of the goal.
Ards were soon 1 up, the result of a sustained bit of pressure on the Duns goal as on two or three occasions Ards delivered dangerous balls into the box. Ex-Ards man Jamie McGovern was making light work of those, getting his head to them and clearing with ease, but the final clearance was skewed to the left of the goal, well beyond the post where Dougan was waiting. Duns keeper Hunter left the safety of this line to claim the ball, diving at Dougans feet, but he somehow missed the ball and caught Dougan taking him off his feet. Clear penalty, with which the ref agreed and pointed to the spot. Dougan, as he did last week, got back to his feet, dusted himself down and converted from 12 yards, early lead for Ards, 11’ on the clock and Dougan carries on his recent good form in front of goal, having scored 5 goals in his last 5 games in all competitions. Set back for the Duns who would have been happy with the opening 10 mins.
Goal of the game Connor Maxwell
Duns looked to hit back after the restart but again, Ards were very strong at the back, limited the chances to get in on Moore. Things were going to plan until the 18th minute when David McMaster pulled something special out of the bag. It was an awkward ball to deal with coming across goal but he managed to catch it first time in the air, sent it back across Moore where it crashed off the inside of the far post. Much to the relief of everyone in Red and blue it bounced very kindly into the arms of Moore and Ards escape. Great technique from McMaster, his reaction suggested he thought it was in and a couple of coats of paint maybe the difference. A let off for Ards which they took full advantage of as within minutes they were celebrating their second goal of the game, Eamon Scannell having finished well at the far post to double the lead on 20’. It was a great flowing move down the right, ball was crossed into the box by Gorman where Scannell attacked it, under pressure from Kerr. The Ards #7 did well first to reach the ball and second direct it on target finishing just the right side of the back post. Great work by E Scannell who’s always there abouts in the box.
Both teams continued to create chances but those carved out by Ards seemed more dangerous than the oppositions, Moore rarely being tested in the first half. Hall and Jenkins both guilty of being wasteful with good chances. Ards went within a whisker of taking a 3-goal lead just before the half hour mark, Ross Hunter going close with a flicked header from a Callum Dougan cross. It was fired across goal, Hunter threw himself at the ball and despite getting something on it, it wasn’t enough to direct it past his opposing namesake in the net. The 3rd goal did come for Ards a few minutes later, this time in spectacular fashion after a free kick had been awarded in the middle of the park. It was around 35 yards from goal, just left of the goal posts. Lots of discussion about what to do but Maxwell decided to just step up and hit it into the top corner of the goal, no fuss at all. It was a brilliantly struck left foot free kick, taking it around the wall and away from the keeper who had no chance of getting near it as it ended up right in the top corner of the goal. Easily the goal of the game and possibly the goal that took the game away from the Duns.
2 mins of time added on at it’s probably fair to say that the Duns had their best chance of the game to get a goal back as Ciaran Dobbin was allowed time and space to have a go at goal. It was far enough out and he’s struck it across goal where it’s just wide of the far post. Was well hit but given far too much time on the ball. Time added on was up and the ref blew up for half time. Second game in a row Ards take a 3-0 lead into the break.
No changes for Ards at the break, the same 11 take to the field after the interval. Ards got the game going again through Ross Hunter, looking to protect their hard-fought lead.
In similar fashion to last week I expect Ards would have prepared themselves for a bit of a second half onslaught with the Duns nothing to lose and they may as well go for it. In similar fashion to last week that was exactly what happened, Ards under pressure straight away as Dundela tried to hit back early and give them some hope in the game. The Ards back line however were not moved and between them and Moore they were able to withstand the early pressure, their 3-0 lead still intact. Brilliant save by Moore on 49’ as Andrew Hall was allowed to stroll through and collect an Anto Burns ball lifted over the top. It was too easy, the offside not coming. With only Moore to beat it looked like the Duns had an early route back into the game but the Ards #1 stayed big, got out fast and made a brilliant save going to his left. A save he had no right to make but a very important one in the context of the game. Had the Duns struck back early they’d have had all the momentum, great save to maintain that lead.
It was a full-on couple of minutes for Ards at the back, Moore heavily involved early on, this time from a David McMaster ball in on 52’. Moore came off his line to claim, did so but was barged over by two Duns players. Seemed a cert that the whistle would go but the ref let play continue Duns presented with an easy chance. Again, Ards players throwing themselves at things eventually scrape it clear. Last week Ards seemed content to sit back and soak up the pressure, which they did admirably, this week however they looked to impose themselves on the game even more so in the second half. Having survived the early pressure Ards turned the tables on the hour mark, getting the ball into the net for the 4th time of the game. Callum Dougan did well to get himself on the end of pinpoint C Scannell ball and finish past L Hunter. Unfortunately, his movement was just fractionally early and the offside flag went raised, the goal ruled out.
Not more than 5 minutes later Ards put the game to bed, Ross Hunter getting himself in on the act as the 4th goal scorer on the day. Dougan the provider this time, sliding the ball through the Duns back line, this time Hunters run was timed to perfection, he collected the ball and this time his opposing namesake could do nothing to prevent the goal. 4-0 the score, 4 different goal scorers as Ards spread the joy around. Unbelievable for the home fans who have had a lot of disappointment this season but finally have something to be very happy about. The 4th goal seemed to have knocked the stuffing out of the Duns and Ards upped the intensity looking to win by a greater margin as they introduced McLaughlin and Miller to the side. Both looked dangerous, Miller using his pace really well wide right before trying an audacious effort on goal on 80’. It flashed just wide of the far post seemingly with Hunter beaten. Had that gone in it would have challenged Maxwells’ for goal of the game.
Last minute instructions to see this one out
It wasn’t to be for Ards, no more goals but plenty of chances created as we neared the end of the game. With the 90 done and the game in the bag Ards made a sub bringing on reserve team player Finlay Bayliss to make is senior debut, not yet 16 I’m sure it was a special moment for the young man. He immediately got himself involved in the game looking to carry the ball down the line after beating a couple of Duns challenges. I’m not sure if it was his age or what but he ended up on the end of what can only be described as a reckless, dangerous challenge as we neared the final whistle. Going nowhere, near the halfway line he was scythed down in a cynical challenge that should have no place on a football pitch. I won’t name the offending player; he knows who he is and if he thinks a challenge like that is acceptable on a football pitch then he needs to rethink his involvement. The officials agreed that a yellow was enough of a punishment for the challenge, again incorrect from my point for view as it was a clear case of endangering an opponent. There was no attempt to win the ball and a red card was the only sanction that should have been imposed. A shocking challenge that rightly caused a coming together on the pitch as his Ards teammates reacted.
That was the last of the action, the ref brought the game to an end after playing the allotted time added on. Another great result for Ards, thoroughly deserved and keeps this great run going.
Next up we play Ballyclare in a rearranged fixture as they prepare to relay their home surface in the new year. Ballyclare were responsible for perhaps the darkest day of the season for Ards so far, a humiliating 6-3 defeat just 4 weeks ago that led to some to demand a change. This will be a chance to undo a lot of that as we go into the game in much better form on the back of an excellent run and two brilliant wins against sides a lot higher than us in the league. It won’t be easy as Ballyclare as on a decent run themselves and have a lot of players playing well at present.
Moore, Gorman, Ruddy, Maxwell, E Scannell, C Scannell, Cafolla, Taggart, Steele, Hunter, Dougan
Shields, Greer, Miller, McLaughlin, McAllister, Bayliss, McCallum