Steel and Sons Cup Round Two
Aquinas 2 Crewe United 3
UNTIL Saturday, Aquinas had won every game in the league and cups without being seriously tested, but all that changed this week.
The visitors to Rathmore sit three divisions above the South Belfast team in the Mid-Ulster Premier Division and their credentials as a proven and successful team are well established. Crewe were always going to present Aquinas with a test of their potential this season, but as the score suggests, the home team certainly didn’t roll over.
In fact, for much of the game they pushed Crewe to dig deep. From the first to the final whistle Aquinas took on their opponents with a sense of determination. They were well organised in defence and threatening in their counter-attacks.
Crewe certainly had the larger slice of luck on the day as Aquinas errors gifted them their goals.
As the clock ticked away on this cup tie, the home team refused to give up and the visitors have the crossbar and their excellent goalkeeper to thank for their victory.
The game started well for Aquinas who made several changes for this cup tie.
Manager John McCormick chose to start some of his younger players and his bench had a youthful look to it as well. Despite a total of five changes, his team were impressive from the outset.
They took the game to Crewe who struggled to contain Caolan Lynch on the right wing. His pace pinned Crewe’s Anthony McGonnell back in his own half.
Any time the full-back pushed out, an Aquinas counter-attack inevitably broke on his side. When the visitors gained possession, Aquinas set deep, pulling their forwards back as a first line of defence and their patience paid off several times.
With Ryan Jenkins and Dan McDonald constantly winning the ball back in midfield for Aquinas, they were able to exploit the space Crewe left in their back line.
Three times Lynch broke on the right wing and he found Martin Ramsey and Thomas Maguire running into space. Crewe’s centre backs Michael Bradley and captain Dean Youle clearly had their hands full.
However, it was Aquinas’s Gavan McDonald who had the first real save of the game with 15 minutes played when he pushed the ball over his bar.
Daniel Smith out-jumped Aquinas’s Dermot McInerney in the six-yard box to meet an excellent ball in from Tiernan McAuley who had made an overlapping run up the left wing. Crewe seemed to have played their way into the game and increasingly their winger Steven Brown on the left shifted the ball across the pitch to find space for runners.
McDonald in the Aquinas goal was again called into action to punch clear a threatening ball into his area by full-back McGonnell.
The deadlock was broken 20 minutes into the game when Aquinas absorbed a period of Crewe dominance and on the counter-attack they showed their ability to move the ball quickly while maintaining possession.
Twice they threatened Ryan Burig’s goal in quick succession. Lynch, Ryan Jenkins and Dan McDonald linked well to move the ball and the Crewe defence about. Burigs is a formidable presence in the Crewe goal and he was quick off his line to deal with through balls. However, the Crewe ’keeper could do nothing to prevent the opening goal.
McDonald won the ball from Ronan Brannigan in his own half and drove into the space behind the midfielder. This pulled the Crewe centre-backs out, allowing him to play a one-two pass with Tom Maguire who attacked the space between the defensive pair. He held them off to finish with his left foot into the left-hand corner of the Crewe goal.
The visitors were rocked at this point and for a time they failed to rally as Aquinas continued to force the game.
The home side’s back line took everything that was thrown at them and with McDonald behind them in commanding form, it looked like they would take their lead into the half-time break, but their fortunes changed within two minutes.
Aquinas were forced to take off goalscorer Maguire who pulled up with an injury and moments later, the referee awarded a penalty when centre-back Mark Boylan collided with pacey Gary Brown when they both went for a high ball that Brown failed to control with his first touch after cutting in from the right wing. Smith stepped up to level the scores.
At half-time, the Aquinas management must have been delighted with their whole team’s performance and their opponents certainly realised they needed to find another gear to push on and win this cup tie.
A very different Crewe came out in the second half bolstered by their goal. They lifted the tempo of the game and pushed Aquinas onto the back foot.
Unlike the first half when they shifted the ball from left to right through their midfield, the visitors were more direct in their balls forward. The ball into the space between the Aquinas wing-backs and the centre-backs was now the preferred option. This turned the home team around and raised the pressure on Mark Boylan, Mark Cummings, and Dermot McInerney in the backline.
Gary Lavery, Ronan Brannigan alongside Gary and Steven Brown on the wings lifted the tempo of the game as Crewe hounded on every Aquinas touch in the midfield.
The introduction of Conall Delaney from the subs bench for Gary Brown gave Crewe a fresh option in attack, but up until the 68th minute the home side weathered the storm admirably. Again, a moment of rashness would hand their opponents the simplest of chances and it was Delaney who assisted in breaking the deadlock moments after his introduction.
He spun off Kev Keenan on the right of the Aquinas box and a well-placed ball from Steven Brown out on the left stretched the home side’s defence. Keenan battled to win back possession on the bye-line, but in his rush to clear his lines he only managed to find the feet of Crewe’s centre midfielder Lavery who squared to Noel Halfpenny waiting free just inside the box. His finish to make it 2-1 was clinical.
Four minutes later, it looked as if the game was over when Aquinas once again gifted Crewe a goal under little or no pressure. Instead of simply clearing their lines effectively, they attempted to play out from the back and two unnecessary passes later, McDonald in goal attempted to finally pump the ball up field, but saw his strike hit off his own player and into the path of Lavery who couldn’t miss.
That could easily have been the end of it but for the next 15 minutes the game was all about Aquinas.
Their manager John McCormick immediately introduced two of his younger players from the bench as Darragh O’Halloran and Darragh Doherty replaced Mellon and Keenan with the dynamic duo making an instant impact as the home side dominated possession.
If it wasn’t for the crossbar and Burig in the Crewe goal, Aquinas could easily have pushed this game to a draw.
Martin Ramsey up front for Aquinas was denied a chance to get in on goal by the impressive Crewe shot-stopper who was quick off his line. Several times he was called upon as their last line of defence.
Botanic Inn’s Man-of-the-Match Ryan Jenkins almost beat the ’keeper when he was the first to react to a free-kick into the six-yard box from Dan McDonald. Again, Burig was on hand to push his effort wide at the near post. From the resulting corner, the big ’keeper pushed Ramsey’s point-blank header onto his crossbar.
The relentless push by Aquinas ended with a well-deserved goal from Caolan Lynch deep into injury time when Doherty picked out his run into the Crewe box with perfect accuracy and the winger neatly lifted the ball beyond the ’keeper and in.
The pressure on Crewe was ended by the referee’s final whistle just as the ball hit the back of the Crewe net.
Saturday’s cup tie gave us a greater insight to what this Aquinas team are capable of.
Their strength in depth and abundance of young talent will certainly help them through a long and difficult season.
When they were well and truly tested, they were not found to be lacking in fight or flair, so few teams will relish the trip to Rathmore this season.
Last Saturday they will have gained a great deal of respect from their reputable and resilient opposition. When they clash again in two weeks’ time in the Irish Cup, it will be interesting to see what happens.