Not the start that Newry wanted with a 2-1 defeat away to Lurgan Celtic but certainly a performance to suggest that they will be competitive in their first season in Championship football.
Faced with a tricky tie away from home to start their campaign it took the Newry boys a quarter of an hour to create their first chance. Jackie Cunningham who had a very competent display on his competitive debut sprayed a diagonal ball over the head of the Lurgan left back allowing Kevin McArdle to get behind the Lurgan defence, with a pull back to Stephen Hughes perhaps the better option McArdle shot from a narrow angle unfortunate to find the side netting.
It was a full 25 minutes before the Newry goalkeeper was called into action, Kieran Gordon quickly off his line to block the ball at the feet of Celtics centre forward Warner Mullan, Newry Captain Chris McMahon on hand to complete the clearance.
The Hughes brothers looked dangerous every time they were on the ball. On 37 minutes it was Marks turn tricking his way past three defenders before squaring the ball to Jimmy Walker on the edge of the box, his low shot shovelled wide of the post by Celtic keeper Liam McCauley.
While the Hughes’ held the attacking threat for Newry it was Warner Mullan that lead the Celtic attack, on 40 minutes the big man bustled his way into the Newry box but was denied a shooting opportunity by a strong block from Mark Patton with McMahon once again on hand to clear up the danger.
With time running out in the first half it was the Hughes brothers who swung the game in Newrys favour, Mark and Stephen exchanging passes to set Mark up with a goal chance, his goal bound effort blocked by Dara Noonan. However, the danger had not gone with the ball once again finding its way to Mark Hughes just outside the penalty area. This time Hughes went alone, jinking outside and inside defenders before smashing the ball into the roof of the Lurgan net to give Newry a one goal advantage at half time.
It was a lead that didn’t last long however, the second half only minutes old when Referee Paul Burns played a good advantage after a Newry foul midway inside the half which left Warner Mullan with space on the edge of the box to pick a spot in the far corner of Gordons net to level the score.
On the hour mark Celtic almost grabbed the lead, a long hopeful ball over the Newry defence met on the run by Warner Mullan his first-time volley saved by the advancing Gordon. Minutes later and Gordon was again in the action, diving acrobatically to tip a 30 yard pile driver from Brendon Shannon over the cross bar. There was nothing the Newry keeper could do from the resulting corner, Celtics Aaron Haire left unmarked to head the ball off the underside of the crossbar and into the net.
Newry responded well with the introduction of Decky Carville and Keith Johnston adding new impetus to the attack. On 80 minutes it was Carville who created an opportunity winning the ball in midfield before playing the ball into the box for Mark McCabe to run on to, referee Burns waving away claims for a penalty as McCabe was bundled over inside the box.
It was all Newry at this stage, an audacious volley from all of 30 yards from Mark Hughes almost catching McCauley off his line, the Celtic keeper relieved to see the ball fly past his post. Minutes later the home side survived a greater scare, McCabe unfortunate to see his curling shot from the corner of the box hit the junction of post and crossbar with McCauley beaten. And there was still time for one last chance for Newry, Kevin McArdle cutting the defence open to release Johnston on the end line, his first time cross met by Decky Carville alas unable to steer his header under the crossbar.
Newry Manager Darren Mullen commented after the game “Whilst it’s very disappointing to lose our first game there are plenty of positives to take from it. We were the better team in the first half and finished the game a lot stronger. However as this league will no doubt prove throughout the season, if you make mistakes you will be punished straight away. The message at half time was to be prepared for them to come at us but we didn’t heed that warning and made basic mistakes for both goals. That said I’m proud of how the players reacted and we had three really good chances to equalise in the last 15 minutes along with a good shout for a penalty. They are a decent experienced side and will be hard to beat down there but we’ve shown enough today to know that we will be well fit for this league. We need to dust ourselves down very quick and will now look forward to our first home game next Saturday.”
Newry City Team: Kieran Gordon, Darren King, Ruairi Cunningham, John Boyle, Mark Patton, Chris McMahon, James Walker, Kevin McArdle, Mark McCabe, Stephen Hughes, Mark Hughes. Subs: Keith Johnston, Thomas McCann, Marty Havern, Caolan Gray, Decky Carville.