Ballymena & Provincial League Premier Division
Donegal Celtic 3-5 St James' Swifts
ST JAMES' SWIFTS withstood a second half surge from Donegal Celtic to claim the points in this goal-fest at Suffolk Road on Saturday afternoon.
Leading 5-1 early in the second half, it seemed the Swifts were well on course to romp to victory in this opening league fixture, but the Wee Hoops battled back superbly and on another day, may even have taken something from this game as they netted twice with Conor McAnena scoring a beauty into the top corner, but went close on a number of occasions as the balance tipped in their favour.
As it was, Swifts' made the most of their opportunities and took the win in a game that was hugely entertaining with some excellent goals scored by both teams.
With the campaign beginning much later in the year than usual, perhaps both teams could be forgiven for being a little rusty but as the game progressed, both settled down with the hosts getting stronger as it went.
It may have been a nervy ending for Swifts, but manager Barry Johnston was happy with how his players responded in the final 10 minutes when their lead had been cut to two.
"Credit where it's due - DC were outstanding in the second half there," he said.
"A lot of teams would give up going 5-1 downbeat there is obviously a good bit of camaraderie and team spirit there. Maybe we took our eye off the ball a bit when we felt we were comfortable but that wonder goal gave them that lift.
"It got a bit scrappy but you expect that in a derby. We reset ourselves and saw out the last 10 minutes comfortably and made the subs at the right times. One goal could have changed it, but we finished well."
The St James' side also started well and looked threatening any time they went forward.
It took nine minutes to carve out their first real opening and then they did, they took full advantage.
Sean Pat Donnelly slipped Francis Nolan through and whilst it appeared he had been tripped just outside the box, the winger managed to get a low shot away that was saved by Gerard Walker, but Kevin Braniff was quick to pounce on the break and roll it home to give Swifts the lead.
They would double their advantage on 17 minutes as a free-kick was played onto Christopher Begley on the left who played an excellent inviting ball across goal where Eugene Gallagher was lurking to finish.
Donegal Celtic were having trouble getting anything going in attack with their final ball letting them down, but they gradually settled after this slow start and pulled a goal back on 22 minutes when Damien Fegan's free-kick from the left fell to Francis Dougan who couldn't quite get the ball under control, but it broke to Conor McAnena on his right and the winger lashed home superbly to the bottom corner for his first of the game.
Niall Peoples saw a hugely ambitious effort from distance fly over for DC who were playing the opening period with a heavy drizzle at their backs, but Swifts were very much in control and they finished the half superbly with another two goals.
The first arrived on 34 minutes as again, Begley played a teasing cross in from the left and with Nolan lurking, DC's Will McCracken stretched to cut the ball out but could only divert it into his own net.
Four minutes later, they added another. This time, Kevin Braniff's corner was nodded back out and Nolan caught it sweetly from the edge of the box to let fly into the net.
They could have had another just before the break when Gary Dorrian's shot on the turn whistled over, but with a 4-1 lead at the break, Swifts looked well on course for an impressive win.
The early stages of the second half gave no reason to question that assessment as they were quick to pick up where they left off and made it 5-1 four minutes in.
Stephen O'Neill beat the offside trap on the right wing and played another excellent ball to the back post with Nolan there to apply the finish and score his second pf the afternoon.
There was a danger that Donegal Celtic would be on the receiving end of a demoralising defeat, but 60 seconds later they found the spark they badly needed as McAnena gathered on the right corner of the box, switched onto his left and sent an arrow of a shot into the top left corner of the net. This spurred the hosts on as suddenly, they were in the ascendency and had a number off chances to pull further goals back.
On 55 minutes, Niall Peoples played in a low cross for the lefty with Jim Hetherington getting the deftest of touches, but the ball went just inches over.
Peoples then saw a rasping drive just about clear the bar from the edge of the box and on 63 minutes, Swifts' goalkeeper Ethan Carry fumbled a high ball with Hetherington passing to McAnena who looked certain to score despite the angle, but he couldn't find the target with Swifts' defenders scrambling back.
Carry made amends with an excellent save down to his right when it seemed Mark McDonald's curling shot was destined for the net, but there was nothing he could do on 75 minutes when Will McCracken just about kept the ball in despite Swifts' protests and pulled the ball back for Peoples to smash home and bring DC right back into it.
McAnena could have completed his hat-trick four minutes for time when his low shot was tipped around the post for a corner by Carry and from that, Chris Rafferty got a touch with the ball about to cross the line before Francis Nolan showed his defensive abilities to get back and just about get it off the line.
This would prove to be DC's final real opportunity as Swifts managed to steady and play out the remaining time to claim the win on a day when both managers could take plusses and minuses.
"Our second half was very good," said We Hoops' manager Liam Hunter.
"In the last 10 or 15 minutes you could see they were on top so there are plenty of positives to take from that.
"I thought that other one crossed the line (from Rafferty), so we will take the positives and move on."
It was a similar message from Barry Johnston who admitted his side may have tired a little in the second half, but this was merely a result of the long layoff without competitive action and he feels his team will improve as the weeks go on.
"It's just getting up to speed now," he acknowledged.
"A lot of the boys were a bit tired going into he last 15 but you would expect that in the first game of the season. But look, it's a win and a derby win so that gives us something to build on.
"Some of the goals, especially the one from the set-piece, was bad, but that gives us something to work with and there are much more positives than negatives to take from that."
DONEGAL CELTIC: G Walker, N Peoples, C Rafferty, N McCauley (P McKissock 77), P Larkin, D Fegan, C McCavana, R McAnena, F Dougan, J Hetherington (J Todd 85), W McCracken.
Goals: McAnena (22, 50); Peoples (75)
ST JAMES' SWIFTS: E Carry, SP Donnelly, C Begley, S Curley, A Bolton, Mark McDonald (Martin McDonald 77), E Gallagher, G Dorrian, S O'Neill (R Hamill 68), K Braniff, F Nolan (D Mullan 90).
Goals: Braniff (9), Gallagher (17), McCracken (OG 34), Nolan (38, 49)