Clear Water Irish Cup 1st Round Proper – 06/01/24
By Phillip Bartlett
Ards Axes Hatchetmen
Heroic Ards battle through to the 6th round of the cup
‘1st round proper’ of the Irish Cup sees all the big boys jump into the fold and Ards FC were fortunate enough to draw possibly the hardest of the lot in the current holders, and back-to-back winners, Crusaders FC. A day out to Seaview providing an interlude in what has been an up and down Championship campaign, with an interim management team in Daryll Philps and Paul Kee following the recent dismissal of Manager Matthew Tipton, it’s safe to say it’s been a tumultuous few days for all involved with Ards FC. It would be understandable that expectations are somewhat low going into the fixture, but it’s worth remembering that cup games can, and often do, offer up shocks in most campaigns. From a fans point of view most will be looking for a performance, an example of what the team can do, with the result secondary to that as we look for anything to kick start the season as we enter into the new year. Crusaders have not lost an Irish Cup game in over 2 and half years, having won the competition the last 2 seasons, and currently sitting in 4th in the IPL, they will have plenty of reasons to be confident of a convincing win.
Seaview looking great in the bright afternoon sunshine
With Ards last game of the year 2023 postponed due to a waterlogged pitch Ards have not featured since their 2-2 draw in the North Down derby on Boxing Day, and a lot can change in a short period of time. With Tipton no longer involved this is the first line up under the interim management making 4 changes to previous starting 11. Having appealed Eamon Scannell’s erroneous red card awarded at Institute on the 22nd of December he was able to feature against Bangor but that has since been thrown out meaning he is not available for this one. Max Miller misses out through injury while Callum Dougan and Ross Hunter drop down to the bench. George Tipton, DeeDee McAllister and James McLaughlin come in to the starting 11 while Adam McCallum also makes a long-awaited return from injury, partnering Matt Gorman in the centre of defence. While some ‘big teams’ opt to field weakened sides in the early rounds, when possible, Crusaders have fielded a very strong side indeed including big names such as Billy Joe Burns, Adam Lecky, Philip Lowry, Paul Heatley and former Ards player Ross Clarke. A tough task indeed.
Few changes to the Ards lineup as we're under interim management
The magic of the cup is very much still alive for everyone wearing Red and Blue after what can only be hailed as a goalkeeping masterclass that saw Ards make it into the hat for the 6th round. After 120+ punishing minutes the teams could not be separated meaning the lottery of spot kicks would decide this. Ards took an unlikely lead, Paddy Cafolla opening the scoring on 14’, after a dominant opening by the hosts. It stunned Crusaders themselves having had several chances to break the deadlock, while also gave Ards a huge lift ensuring the remainder of the 1st half was closer than some might have expected. Ards looked to have done enough to hold their lead going into the interval, but Jordan Forsythe had other ideas as he lifted the ball into the far corner of the goal on 41’ to cancel out the opener. It was a fortunate goal for the hosts as it appeared the midfield man was instead looking to lift the ball back into the danger area but managed to scoop it into the goal just out of reach of the imperious Alex Moore. Second half went pretty much as expected Crusaders on top, dictating the play while Ards looked to hang on by being organised and resolute at the back. Ards chances were limited in the final 3rd while the ‘Crues’ were creating chance after chance, but unable to find a way past Alex Moore for a second time as the Ards shot stopper produced the performance of his life. Things were evened out slightly midway through the half when Crusaders goalkeeper Williamson was shown a straight red for handball outside the box to give Ards a man advantage and open the door for the away side. Despite a myriad of chances being created there were no more goals for either side in the second half and we were taken into an additional 30 minutes of extra time, which also somehow remained goalless meaning it was down to the dreaded spot kicks. There were 14 penalties taken all told, flawless execution until Billy Joe Burns stepped up for Crues and saw his penalty saved by Moore presenting Ards with the chance to capitalise. That responsibility fell to Ethan Taggart who had spent most of the game as a makeshift right back, he stepped up with no fear, slotted his penalty home with conviction to give Ards an unbelievable result against one of the best sides in Irish League football.
Even the most ardent of Ards FC fans would not have expected much in returns from this game as we made our way along the Shore Road on a cold but bright Saturday afternoon. Despite them saying they fielded a ‘weakened’ side make no mistake, this was a very strong Crusaders side, and their ability and quality was on display right from the off as they penned Ards back from the opening moments of the game, Ross Clarke swapping sides to delivery back-to-back corners after less than 100 seconds on the clock. With the dynamic set early on Ards knew they were in for a tough day. Crusaders, on another day, could have scored a number of goals and arguably should have been in front in as early as the 5th minute, Adam Lecky somehow unable to make contact with another Ross Clarke cross. It looked a simple finish, but he must have taken his eye of the ball at the last second allowing it to slip past him.
Much has been made of the performance of Alex Moore in the Ards goal, I doubt any of it could really do it justice, outside of being there to witness it. Ards were resolute at the back for the majority of the game but in those occasions where the Crues did get through, Moore seemed simply unbeatable. He was called into action early getting down to his left sharply to palm away a Philip Lowry shot. It was a really well hit strike, the midfield man afforded far too much time and space on the edge of the area, but Moore got a strong hand on it and palmed it to safety. Crusaders kept pressing high, delivering balls into the box from both sides, Clarke on the right or O’Rourke from the left but failing to get on the end of them, the returning Adam McCallum making a huge difference in the centre of defence. As we approached the 15-minute mark, very much under the cosh having yet to set foot in the Crusaders half, the unthinkable happened. Adam McCallum’s long ball up field caught the Crusaders midfield napping and Cafolla ran through to pick it up. With just Larmour for company Cafolla travelled towards goal pushing Larmour back into his own box. Robert Weir dropped back to assist and just as it seemed they had pushed him wide enough of goal, the Ards #8 looked up and essentially passed the ball into the far corner of the net, Williamson no chance as he dived full stretch to try and reach it. A great goal, a clinical finish, by Cafolla to open the scoring and give Ards an unexpected lead, 1-0 after 14’.
Celebrations as Paddy Cafolla gave Ards and unexpected lead on 14' with a great solo goal
That goal changed the feel of the game, while Crusaders still dominated the ball and were creating many more chances than Ards, we were making more of a game of it in the final areas of the pitch, giving them something extra to think about. I lost count of the amount of crosses Ross Clarke made in the opening 45 through open play or corner awards, despite this Ards couldn’t be undone, Crusaders unable to take advantage of their possession. Their best chance at an equaliser came on 33’, BJB with a cross from the right finding Jarlath O’Rourke at the back post unmarked. He looped a header back across goal looking for the far post, but it creeped just wide of the upright. Heart in mouth moment for the travelling RABA there. Ards had to make a couple of tweaks to the lineup as we lost Max Greer to injury after 25’. Ross Hunter brought on to the left as Ethan Taggart dropped to cover in right back. As mentioned, Ards were limited in chances but at 1-0 the Ards goal scorer Cafolla was presented with a very similar situation having been played through by the recently introduced Hunter. Looking to get the better of Larmour again, and nearly doing so, but the defender just managed to get a last-ditch toe on the ball to clear it. One he had to get right as if he didn’t clear it Cafolla would have been through and had he clipped Paddy he would surely have seen red.
With just under 5 minutes left of the half it looked like Ards may well hold on and carry their lead into the interval, but Jordan Forsythe put paid to that with a somewhat fortuitous goal on 41’. After all the well worked chances and goalscoring opportunities missed by the Crues it was a bit of luck that garnered them their equaliser, Forsythe clearly looking to lift the ball to the back post to be attacked but scooped it such that it lifted over Moore and fell just over his head into the back of the net. 1-1 the score just before the half time break. There were 2 additional minutes to play at the end of the first half covering the injury to Greer, but there was no action both teams happy to get off after a high tempo first 45.
No changes for Ards at the break, the same 11 take to the field after the interval. Crusaders get the game going again.
Possibly the game of his Life, the imperious Alex Moore in the Ards goal
Another fast start by the home side, Lecky going to close to heading Crusaders into the lead in the opening minute after the restart. Moore did well to make the initial save, take the power out of it, before gathering at the second attempt. As one would expect Lecky was the main target for the Crues but they had threats all over the park for Ards to contend with, no more so than Lloyd Anderson who tested Moore on 50’ with an angled shot at the near post. It was a decent hit but quite comfortable for Moore who watched it all the way and made the save. Having been solid and organised for over 50 minutes, you could still see hints of the problems Ards have faced all season where they cause a lot of their problems themselves. Gorman stood off waiting too long to go and attack the through ball allowing Crusaders to steal in. Lecky got beyond the Ards defence, looked to lay it back to someone in black and red but only found McCallum. The Ards man cleared, but only as far as Anderson on the edge of the box but he was unable to sort his feet out and get a shot way, Ards survive again and able to clear.
For a ten-minute period in the second half it seemed that Crusaders were working on a corner training drill sending in a huge number of set pieces. Moore was in the mood today and on each occasion came out to meet the ball, commanding his area and clearing the danger, a real benefit to his defensive line while under immense pressure. With the scoreline still at 1-1 and 70 minutes on the clock there was a twist in the story as Crusaders found themselves down to 10 men, goalkeeper Jordan Williamson shown a straight red for a handball outside of the area. While usually a yellow card offence, the referee determined that he had prevented and obvious goalscoring opportunity as he charged down James McLaughlin’s effort with his hands well outside the safety of his penalty box. It was a good move by Ards, keeping the pressure on through Ross Hunter but it was very clumsy by the Crusaders keeper from beginning to end. A long ball up field, Williamson came to clear under some pressure by Hunter, he made a mess of the initial clearance launching it high in the air. He battled with Hunter again outside the area trying to claim before the ball found its way to McLaughlin. With the goal wide open the Ards forward tried to lift it towards goal first time, but Williamson had carried on his run and essentially ‘saved it’ above his head, miles out from his area. No choice for the ref, the tables turned slightly as Ards gain the man advantage.
Despite being a man down Crusaders still had the better of it and again will feel they should have sealed it within normal time, Moore again proving very difficult to beat as he pulled off a miraculous double save with less than 10 minutes to go. Another cross into the box as Crusaders had everyone forward for the set piece, the unlikely Daniel Larmour going close to giving the hosts the lead from 4 or 5 yards out, but Moore made a fantastic reaction save going to his left. The ball didn’t go too far away from goal falling to Anderson about 7 yards out but his goal bound effort hit Moore in the face and is deflected away. Another brilliant bit of work from Moore keeping his team in it. We move into 6 minutes of time added on at the end of the 90’ and there is still time for Moore to add to his save collection, stopping both Heatly and Anderson from stealing it right at the death with excellent blocks.
That was the last of the action, the 6 minutes were up, and the officials call time on the 90 meaning we are into an additional 30 minutes of extra time. This Ards team have certainly given their all in that display and now have to find the energy for another 30 minutes of the same. McAllister was replaced by Dougan before the restart, the left sided player having ran himself into the ground like most of his teammates. A huge ask for the part time side already ravaged by injuries and absentees.
A short turn around and Crusaders get us going again. The first 15 min of extra time was a bit of a cagey affair, Crusaders still edging possession despite being a man down but failed to really test Moore until 98’ when Anderson fires a shot at goal from an angle, Moore makes the save but the ball falls kindly for Jordan Owens in the box around the penalty spot. He fires it towards an unguarded goal, Moore still recovering from the earlier chance, but McCallum has done brilliantly to drop back and protect his line taking that Owens shot right in the midriff to stop it from crossing the line. Ards players really giving everything they have in defence of this scoreline. While it was mostly one way traffic, a symptom of the game as a whole, Ards still had something offer up top having introduced Callum Dougan, and it was Dougan that gave the home side a scare on 100’, firing a shot at the near post but replacement keeper Kerr did well to see it round the post and away from danger.
After 1 minute time added on the first period of extra time was brought to and end, 1-1 the score.
Ards got the last 15 minutes under way, victory or bust for the home side given all the chances they have created and spurned. A tough 15 minutes for Ards, players clearly out on their feet having given their all for 113 minutes already, but each one to a man gutted it out admirably. The last 15 minutes was almost a microcosm of the game as a whole, we had everything in that last period from penalty shouts, efforts off the bar and posts as both sides chased the win late on.
Ards had a huge penalty shout on 110’ Robert Weir while trying to clear the ball seemed to have headed it onto his own hand to complete the clearance. The Ards fans were convinced but the officials were having none of it. Shortly after that Ards had their best chance of the game following great work by Steele and Hunter in the final 3rd. Steele with the cross from deep on the right picking out Hunter at the back post. He’s caught it so sweetly on the volley, Kerr with no chance to save but to the dismay of all in red and blue (or white, black and gold) it’s came crashing back off the bar and away to safety. Such an opportunity to steal it really late on.
From Ards hitting the bar to Crues hitting the post with mere seconds remaining. Crusaders awarded a really late free kick just yards outside the box just left of centre. Ards fans as a collective were left holding their breath as ex Ards winger Ross Clarke stepped up to take, everyone in the ground well aware of what the Kircubbin man is capable of. With no time left on the clock Clarke hits it right footed beyond the wall. Moore tried to make up the ground but can’t get there instead he sees it crash off the upright and fly away to safety. An unbelievable end to an unbelievable game as the referee brings the game to a close after 130 minutes of football. Ards have done the unthinkable and managed to hold out against top level premier league opposition to force the lottery of penalties.
Hard fought but thoroughly deserved win for Ards as they progress in the cup
Not much to say about the penalties as they were flawless, neither keeper really given a chance of denying any of the opening 12 spot kicks as we went deep into ‘sudden death’. The moment Ards and Moore had been waiting on came as Crusaders’ Billy Joe Burns stepped up to take their 7th penalty. Moore composed himself, Burns stepped up and side footed it to the keepers right. Moore guessed correctly springing to meet the ball and keep it out, smashing the door wide open for Ards to walk into the next round. With the opportunity now presented Ethan Taggart had the responsibility of stepping up to take it having already watched Ruddy, McLaughlin, Dougan, Tipton, Hunter and Steele convert before his turn. I’m not sure what he was feeling internally but, on the outside, he seemed composed and in control, before firing in the last penalty and sending Ards into the hat for the 6th round of the Irish Cup. The scenes among the away fans were remarkable, a fan base that had been put through it all of late with something to finally to be proud of and worthy of celebration. The players were also elated on the pitch having withstood such a barrage against a very top side in Crusaders, most having played over 130 minutes and clearly given everything they had for this result.
An historic result for Ards, a real bright spot in a season that has little to be cheerful about and we were rewarded with a 6th round draw away to Institute at the Brandywell at the start of February. A good draw for Ards with a real chance to progress further in the cup.
6th Round Draw sees Ards face the long journey to the North West
Now that all the excitement has died down we’re back to the ‘bread and butter’ of the league campaign, as the board continue to work on filling the managerial spot, the interim management team will be focusing on Ballinamallard at home next weekend and trying to make sure the players get well rested and up for the game, plenty of work for Ards FC physio Sam this week to help those players in their recovery. The Mallards sit one position above Ards, 3 points better off and with a superior goal difference but a significant win could see Ards overtake them and jump up to 9th in the table as we seek to progress after this most excellent of results.
Moore, Greer, Gorman, McCallum, Ruddy, Tipton, Cafolla, Taggart, Steele, McAllister, McLaughlin
Shields, Hunter, Dougan, Clarke, Ritchie, Bayliss, Miller