NIFL Playr-Fit Championship – 08/11/23
By Phillip Bartlett
Dougan on the Spot as Ards Triumph
Riveting first half propels Ards to victory and three very needed points
Ards back on the road for this fixture making the short journey across to East Belfast to take on H&W Welders at the Blanchflower Stadium. After last week’s disappointment, conceding late on to basement club Knockbreda and handing them their first point of the season, the fans making the trip will be looking for a much-improved performance and a positive result to go with it. There was increased belief around the club after a comprehensive victory away to Dergview closely followed by a credit worthy showing against Premier League champions Larne in the League cup, but that progress would have been hampered somewhat having failed to kick on against Knockbreda. Both teams played out a 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture back in August, Ards equalising late on to secure a hard-fought point with Callum Dougan grabbing the all-important goal. Going into this one Ards sit 10th in the league with the Welders up in 5th with a 7-point advantage.
Great conditions for the match to get underway....
Three changes to the starting eleven that featured last week against Knockbreda with Max Greer, DeeDee McAllister and James McLaughlin dropping to the bench being replaced by Ross Hunter, Ethan Taggart and Callum Dougan. With a lot of head scratching in the crowd as to the actual formation another twist was thrown into the mix as George Tipton was withdrawn just before the game began having picked up an injury during the warmup. Paddy Cafolla was initially named on the bench but was drafted into the starting 11, his first start coming back from injury. Ards went into this game with a limited number on the bench, the last-minute inclusion of Cafolla in the starting 11 reduced that to 4 available players. Tough times for the RABA as they contend with ongoing injuries to key individuals. Plenty of ‘well knowns’ in the opposition with several with Ards connections being named in the squad as Jamie Glover starts with ex-Ards forward Michael McLellan is on the bench. The Welders #1, Michael Argyrides, might not be over familiar to many but he did have a trial at Ards some years ago before moving on.
In the topsy-turvy context of the season, it’s not hyperbole to suggest that the first 45 minutes of this game was the best Ards have played all season, everything seeming to go our way. Ards were solid across the back, creative when in possession and found clinical finishes when it counted. It was a team full of dynamism, fast flowing football and a lot of hard work and effort that resulted in Ards storming into a commanding 3-0 lead after just 20 minutes played, the Welders didn’t know what had hit them. Ards captain Michael Ruddy got us off and running after just 6’ minutes, getting on the end of a Conor Scannell cross to head in the opening goal of the game. A great start for the away team that got even better just 5 minutes later when Callum Dougan won and scored a penalty on 11’, 2-0 in the blink of an eye. More rewards for Ards and Dougan again less than minutes later as the front man wriggled clear in the box and finished well past Argyrides to give Ards a 3-0 lead with less than 20 minutes played. The Welders did recover some and made a fist of what was left in the half, but Ards remained solid and contained them well getting to the break with little to nothing of concern. The second half was a very different affair, the Welders making some half time changes and going for it as they had nothing else to lose. As such Ards dropped that bit deeper, looked to repel the Welders attacking play while still looking for opportunities to attack on the counter. While Ards had little of the ball in the second half it was still a very assured performance having done the damage in the first and looking to protect that lead, hitting back when chances presented themselves. Despite all the Welders pressure Ards held firm, Alex Moore relatively untested as the game was brought to a close. Ards doing the work in the first half and showing a much different side in the second half to see it out. The second 45, while a different Ards display, it was no less impressive as a team.
When 15:00 struck and the H&W Welders kicked off I don’t think anyone in the ground, from either side, could have predicted what we would see in the opening 20 minutes, Ards starting the game very much on the front foot and never taking their foot off the pedal until the game was arguably out of sight. We’ve all seen similar games where Ards create plenty of chances, but the clinical nature lets us down, there was none of that today. Ards carved out the first chance of the game and grabbed the first goal of the game with it. Brilliant work down the left by C Scannell, winning an early free kick and getting a chance to deliver early. It was a dangerous ball whipped deep toward the back post where captain Michael Ruddy tracked the flight all the way and making no mistake, his downward header sliding just the right side of the post out of Argyrides each. 6’ gone, Ards 1-0 to the good early on.
Ards captain Michael Ruddy opens the scoring for Ards with a header at the back post
A good start got better just 5 mins later as Callum Dougan was clipped making a run across the Welders back line in the box. Clear penalty, the ref had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Dougan won the penalty, and he was given the responsibility of stepping up to take the spot kick. The Ards striker dusted himself off and did just that, converting calmly right footed into the corner of the net, Argyrides guessing right but couldn't make up the distance such was the pace on the ball. Calm finish under the circumstances and gives Ards a 2-0 lead after just 10 minutes on the clock. Ards looked to capitalise over a shell-shocked Welders side as Hunter was presented with a good change on 18’, played through by Cafolla. He never really had control of the ball in a way to utilise his pace allowing Patterson and McCarthy to double up and relieve him of the ball and steer it out for an Ards throw.
Ards weren’t to be denied for long as they were awarded a further throw in high up the pitch. C Scannell took it inside, a couple of passes in the middle between Taggart and Steele before it was laid out to C Scannell again and this time he crossed into the box. Two Welders heads tried to clear, put under pressure by Taggart, and it appears that Kyle Owens got an inadvertent touch that laid it perfectly into Dougan’s path and from there it was a simple finish into the corner of the goal. A simple finish perhaps, but great movement by the Ards #9 putting him in the right place to grab his second of the game and Ards third with only 19’ gone. A blistering start by Ards with few in the ground able to believe what we are witnessing. Of course, football is there to try us all and several minutes after going 3-0 up the Welders went within inches of quickly clawing one back, Kyle Owens rising the highest (obviously) to meet an Aidan Finnegan corner from the right. Owens met the ball well with his head, directing it downwards and back across the keeper. It had beaten Moore in the Ards goal but quick thinking of the returning Paddy Cafolla to drop back on the line prevented it from finding the back of the net. Cafolla getting the ball cleared much to the relief of those around him. Excellent work.
After such a fast start to the game there was always going to come a bit of pressure in the opposite direction, players such as Parkhouse and Finnegan providing quality deliveries but the Welders failing to take advantage of them or put any real sustained pressure on the Ards goal in the opening 45. Best chance of the half for the Welders to get back in this one, bar the earlier Owens header, came on 39’ a well worked move with McCarthy, Ferguson and Parkhouse combining well to easily pass it round the Ards back line. McCarthy laying it off for Ferguson, brilliant through ball slid into the path of Parkhouse who finished well past Moore, but he’d made his run fractionally early and was pulled back for offside, the goal chalked off by the officials.
The Ards set piece delivery had been great through the first half, E Scannell keeping up that trend right on the stroke of half-time, sending in a really dangerous from a free kick awarded wide right. It beat everyone in the box arcing toward the keeper, but Maxwell hadn’t given up on it clashing with Argyrides in a brave attempt to get something on it. He was flagged offside so wouldn’t have counted had he got the better of the situation but Ards threatening from all areas of the park. That was the last action of the half and after playing an additional 5+ minutes of time added on the ref brought the game to a halt. 3-0 the score for the travelling side.
No changes for Ards at the break, the same 11 take to the field after the interval while the Welders make a couple of changes to try and get themselves back into the game. Ards got the game going again, looking to protect their hard-fought lead.
I dare say Ards were prepared for a difficult second half during the break, the Welders with nothing to lose and would have been primed to come out all guns blazing, and that is what transpired, Ards put under sustained pressure early on, unable to really get their foot on the ball at all while the Welders pressed. The two Welders changes, Barr and O’Connor looked dangerous early on, combining well to flash a header just wide of the near post in the opening stages of the half. Finnegan also picked up where he left off in the first half, sending a really dangerous ball into the box on just 2 mins after the restart looking for Ferguson. The prolific Welders striker made decent contact but was unable to direct it goalward and Moore could just watch it over the bar.
That was pretty much the story for the opening 15/20 minutes, the Welders dominating the ball, delivering plenty of balls into the box but Moore remained untroubled throughout, the defensive lineup in from of him performing admirably to keep their lead intact, Michael Ruddy controlling the backline excellently. Very tense moment on 52’ though, a huge scramble in the Ards box resulted in several spurned chances on goal. It looked to all that it would be converted but those in red and blue were throwing themselves in front of everything and no-one in yellow and black could get that telling touch before Ards finally managed to get it clear. Moore was injured during the scramble but managed to maintain his clean sheet and was able to carry on after some treatment. That could have been the spark that the Welders were looking for, but Ards did well to snuff it out.
Callum Dougan grabs himself a brace in a thrilling opening 20 minutes
It was clear to see that Ards had a game plan for the second half and remaining patient was key to seeing this one out, holding firm at the back while still looking for opportunities to attack. Those opportunities were limited but after withstanding the Welders onslaught for 20 minutes Ards were able to carry the ball forward through Dougan. The two goal Ards man was getting through an enormous amount or work up top, not making it easy for them at all. He was put through on 69’, catching the Welders out and he was in on goal. Still some distance out he raced to goal but had a bit too much to do and was eventually caught up and dispossessed, just didn’t enough to get free and clear and to test Argyrides. Chances on the break and set pieces were pretty much all that Ards were relying on to get up the pitch and test the Welders further.
Key moment of the half on 77’, heading towards the last 10 mins still with the 3-goal lead preserved, Conor Scannell has done brilliantly to stop a certain Welders goal at the back post and a way back into the game. It was great play all around, excellent delivery picking out McCoubrey at the back post, the Welders sub in the right place for what seemed to be a tap in, but C Scannell appeared out of nowhere to slide in and divert it round the post for a corner, fantastic goal saving interception. Couple of minutes later the ball was in the net again, the Welders thinking they have a route back into the game, but it’s been pulled back ironically for a foul awarded to the Welders. They showed their frustration at the advantage having not been played, the ref a bit quick on the blow, thankfully for Ards. The free kick was eventually taken by McLellan, well hit hard and low, but Moore was behind it all the way.
Nearing the end of the 90 minutes, there was 4 minutes of time added on to be played but it was very much more of the same, the Welders doing well down the sides to make space for crosses and deliveries but making little to nothing from them. The 4 mins were up, the ref called the game to a halt with Ards taking the result 3-0, having grabbed all their goals in the first half. Despite all their possession in the second half the Welders really failed to land many shots on the opponents today resulting in a very welcome clean sheet and a more welcome 3 points.
Ards wrap up a very impressive win along with another clean sheet
It would be very easy to focus on the 3 goals early on and ignore the rest but that would do a disservice to the Ards back line who were resolute throughout, as was the whole team working together in a real committed performance from everyone involved to see this one over the line. The goals are clearly important, you don’t win games without them, but the game management in the second half, the understanding that it would be a different game int eh second half and adapting to that shows what this team can do. Won’t be any easier next week as highfliers Dundela travel to Clandeboye park. Ards have beaten the Duns already this season so they will no doubt be looking to get their own back and continue their own push for promotion as they sit second, level on points with Portadown but with 2 games in hand following yesterday's abandonment against Institute. Very much looking forward to it now after this showing, a new system hopefully bringing much needed consistency to the team.
Moore, Gorman, Ruddy, Maxwell, E Scannell, C Scannell, Cafolla, Taggart, Steele, Hunter, Dougan
Greer, Miller, McLaughlin, McAllister