NAFL Premier Division
Crumlin Star 0-3 Rathfriland Rangers
GAMES in hand, along with the added bonus of playing their nearest rival next, meant that Rathfriland Rangers began Saturday’s kick-off knowing their fate lay entirely in their hands.
Three points at Cliftonville Playing Fields for Rangers would wrap the title up on the day, anything less and they’d have to wait until Tuesday to finally see themselves declared as champions of the NAFL Premier Division.
As for Star, having played two more games than Rangers and level on points, only a win would give them any hope of getting their hands on silverware this season, or at the very least, delaying the Rangers’ celebrations for a number of days.
Crumlin Star started the game very much like a team who knew they needed to win, with a couple of corners and a half-chance after a nice passing exchange between McNeill and McIlkenny, as the striker just dragged his the shot wide in the opening minutes.
Star launched a number of long balls up towards striker McNeill early on, however the attacker was unable to get the better of the Rangers centre-half Black, who demonstrated his aerial dominance early on.
After a number of half-chances for the Ardoyne men, it was Rangers' turn with a diagonal ball holding up for striker Brian Newell who lobbed the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper, with his effort just glancing the crossbar before going over for a goal kick.
Both sides tried to utilise the physicality of their target men, Newell and McNeill, with the latter struggling to get the better of the opposition defenders whilst the former provided a constant outlet for his team, bringing the ball down beautifully on a number of occasions before laying it off to the overlapping Fitzpatrick and Holloway. Everything positive Rangers did in the first half went through the feet, chest and head of Newell, who continued to torment the home defence.
Another outlet for Rangers in the first half was left back Robert Graham, who on numerous occasions found himself in acres of space on the left flank, as the home midfield failed to track the wandering full-back.
Following a period of pressure from Rangers, a scuffle broke out between Holloway and Aidan McNeill, resulting in both players receiving a yellow card from referee Richard White. As the half wore on, captain Joseph McNeill grew more and more frustrated, not only with the lack of service delivered to him but with a number of refereeing decisions which the striker felt went against his side. His frustration was more and more on display as the minutes ticked by, with a yellow card seemingly inevitable.
One of the rare occasions where Rangers’ Newell couldn’t make the ball stick, it broke for the Crumlin Star midfield and allowed Maguire to set up a dangerous attack, who was fouled just after releasing Smyth who had found room just on the edge of the Rangers box. The referee blew for a free-kick, much to the dismay of the hosts who felt an advantage should have been played, as they had men over after catching Rangers out of position. A free-kick was the eventual outcome and a yellow card for Kilmartin.
Crumlin Star’s frustrations were only added to after they failed to test McMullan from what was a free kick in a really dangerous area. Rangers had gotten away with one.
Just before the break, again it was Graham proving a nuisance for Crumlin, as the full back ghosted in at the back post unmarked for a free header, with the defender just glancing the header wide. 0-0 at half time.
The second half picked up where the first left off, with Rangers immediately on the front foot as Newell continued to make his presence felt. It was not only the aerial dominance of Newell, but the touch and passing of the big striker, with his link-up play continuing to give the home back line a headache.
A lovely one-two between Newell and Neale on the edge of the Star box almost allowed Rangers to take the lead, but for an excellent save from Smyth. A number of chances in quick succession for Rangers from Scannell and Neale only served to add fuel to the fire of the Crumlin frustrations, as they began to vent their frustrations towards the referee. The protests, lead by striker McNeill, seemed to give Rangers a boost as they could sense Crumlin were beginning to wilt.
Moments later, a few not so pleasant words were exchanged between Crumlin goalkeeper Smyth and Rangers’ Fitzpatrick after the winger went tumbling to the ground following what seemed to be very little contact from the onrushing goalkeeper. Penalty claims were quickly waved away, but not before Smyth allowed Fitzpatrick to know exactly how he felt.
The constant fouls and the relentless Rangers pressure all finally came to a head in the 79th minute when that partnership again of Neale and Newell linked up once more, with Neale turned provider this time for the ever-grateful Newell whose low shot gave goalkeeper Smyth no chance. 1-0, and the possibility of being crowned champions on the day edging that little bit closer.
The goal had been coming, particularly from Newell who had had a couple of sightings earlier in the half, but made no mistake this time. The goal seemed to crush any hopes Crumlin had of delaying the Rangers party, as gaps that had been hard to come by all afternoon now began to pop up everywhere, and Robert Graham didn’t need a second invitation to exploit another.
The full-back picked the ball up about 40 yards out on the left-hand side, arms waving as he screamed to his teammates to give him options. None appeared. The full-back noticed space in behind the Crumlin winger, and with some beautiful footwork, beat two statuesque defenders before firing the ball low and hard into the goalkeeper’s near post. 2-0. It was all but over.
The best goal of the day was saved for last. From a free-kick to Rangers in the 84th minute, 40 yards out slightly to the left, Fitzpatrick stood over it and curled one beautifully into the top corner. Postage stamp.
Despite the Crumlin goalkeeper seemingly being unhappy with his wall, he can take some solace in the fact that three walls would not have stopped this effort. Unstoppable. A fitting end to a solid performance from the would-be champions. 3-0. A clean sheet. Delighted fans, parents, partners and kids watching on. Rathfriland Rangers, the 2021/22 NAFL Premier Division champions as Crumlin Star’s lingering hopes were extinguished.
“We knew we had the luxury of the games in hand, but we didn’t want to rely on that,” said a visibly emotional Alastair Wilson, head coach of Rathfriland Rangers.
“We knew we wanted to get the job done today, and I’m delighted for all the lads and couldn’t be prouder.”
RATHFRILAND RANGERS: B McMullan, R Graham, J Black, R Fitzpatrick, A Kilmartin, B Newell, A Neale (J Costello 85), M Holloway (S Ward 86), J Hayes (J Scannell 50), H Campbell, J Carson.
Goals: B Newell 79, R Graham 81, R Fitzpatrick 84.
CRUMLIN STAR: D Smyth, B Short, A McNeill, P Prigent, M Lyons, J McNeill, P McIlkenny, G Maguire, S McBurney, S Smyth, P McConnell (M Chines, 70)