The best goal seen at the Showgrounds this year came in Saturday’s end of season challenge match between the staff and supporter’s team. With the supporters team leading 2-1 with five minutes left Mo Ruddy, who’s last appearance in a Newry shirt saw him score on Sky Sports Soccer AM, beat Ray Byrnes offside trap to run onto a perfect pass from Chris McAllister and from 30 yards chip a beautifully flighted shot over goalkeeper Marty McParland to give the underdogs what should have been an unassailable 3-1 lead.
Alas, due to some controversial time keeping from referee Neil McCullough, who has refereed every Newry match this season from behind the opposition nets and now was obviously keen to gain favour with those at the helm at the club, the amateurs were forced to keep playing until the staff had scored the two goals necessary to secure the draw and so spare their blushes. So dubious were some of the decisions the referee got some of his own treatment as he was booed and jeered throughout the game by Daniel and Mary Murphy behind the Canal Court end goals.
Having trained two nights a week for almost a year, in their team huddle before the game, the staff will have been confident of victory especially when they looked at the assorted shapes and sizes of the opposition. This over confidence was carried onto the pitch and displayed in the first minutes when Northern Ireland over 40’s Darren Mullen attempted to lob the supporter’s goalkeeper, Keith Larkin, who did not need to use his height as Mullen’s shot dropped tamely into his arms.
Play moved quickly from end to end with a lot of one touch football, one touch for the staff and one for the supporters with little cohesive football. However, a touch of class was introduced after 20 minutes when Gareth McCullough stepped up to a free kick awarded after reserve team assistant manager Kevin Darcy had scythed down Liam McLoughlin on the edge of the box. McCullough curled the free kick up and over the wall and watched as McParland dived full length to push his shot out. However the keeper, who in an inspired decision by manager Conlon Morrison took his place in nets in front of the legendary net minder Mickey Keenan who was forced to try his hand as a centre forward, could do little as the rebound was pounced upon by Lee Savage who slammed the ball to the net to put Gerry Hillen’s supporters team 1-0 up. The decision to put McParland in nets was indeed inspired because during this period he kept his team in the game making excellent saves first from McAllister and then from another McCullough free kick.
The staff team did have their attacking moments in the first half but never really looked likely to get past a defence superbly marshalled by Brian Henning. Decky McParland, who was full of running in the first half as opposed to the second period, had a good chance to shoot after 20 minutes but inexplicably sacrificed this opportunity claiming to be have been fouled on the edge of the area, quite correctly unable to persuade referee McCullough of his plight, the referee warning him against diving. The staff continued to push forward but the supporter’s full backs Michael McMahon and Jack Hillen used their younger legs to keep tabs on the fluid attacking threat posed by Conlon Morrison, Dessie Murphy, Jervis McCaul and Mickey Keenan. With minutes to go before half time Mullen went on a mazy run which took him inside the box and to the by line from where he tried to pull the ball back only for it to be blocked with Mullen screaming for handball. Referee McCullough must have been unsighted to both the hand ball and especially as to who was appealing for it as he signalled for a corner much to the Newry manager’s disgust.
However, the threat to the supporters goal was not yet gone with the corner still to be taken but that danger was extinguished and defence turned to attack when McCaul, as he ran to the corner to pick up a short cross, heard a call to “jump it Jervis” and did so in good faith but was aghast to see that the call came from the supporters wily Brendan Monaghan who was now sprinting up field with the ball. Monaghan passed to Savage now in a race on goal with Thomas King who matched him for pace but was unable to stop him getting a shot on goal, the staff team yet again saved by McParland in nets. And so the half ended with the shock score line 1-0 to the supporters.
The second half started with the supporters, prompted by the experienced Monaghan and Gareth McCullough, on the front foot with David Larkin, Aodhan McArdle, Aaron Irwin and Jim Keenan giving the staff no end of trouble.
There was always the threat that the staff could sneak a goal on a counter attack and they almost did just that with 25 minutes remaining when Decky McParland broke down the right wing and floated over a cross for which Mullen rose just like big Peter Thompson and was sure he had scored with a fine header only to be denied by Larkin who tipped his effort round the post. The respite was only temporary as the corner was seized upon by Ciaran Murphy who fired home the equalizer. Prospects for a surprise away victory, the staff obviously fancying their chances before the game and claiming the famous home strip, did not look good with Ian McDonald, John Feehan and Paul Lyons all looking sharp.
However the supporters refused to lay down with McMahon following in the footsteps of his brother providing the inspiration winning the ball in a 50/50 tackle and feeding Monaghan. Sensing a chance Monaghan played a first time pass to Ruddy who nonchalantly flicked the ball into the path of Callum Martin. Martin bore down on McParland’s goal and with the keeper advancing slipped the ball inside his near post to restore the supporters lead. And that lead was doubled with 5 minutes left by Ruddy with that wonder goal and the shock victory was more or less secured.
Unfortunately a game which looked like it was going to be decided by sheer football ability turned into a fitness battle which obviously suited the staff team. With minutes remaining and maybe a few extra players on the pitch, apparently not noticed by the referee, Jervis Og McCaul broke down the left wing and played in the perfect cross which was met on the run by Murphy who smashed the ball to the net for his second goal of the game. And with time up the ultimate injustice happened when McParland again crossed from the right wing and Mullen who belies his age with a strict fitness regime pushed young Murphy out of the way, thus denying his team mate a hat trick, in his quest to score the equalizer which he celebrated as if it had won the Premiership for Liverpool. Match day announcer Niall Crilly must also have thought that the goal had secured Liverpools title as his tannoy announcement was equally exuberant or perhaps with new contracts up for grabs he was just happy that his manager had scored? And just like a good GAA referee content at having secured the draw McCullough blew the final whistle straight after the down trodden supporters had centred.
After the game although despondent that they had let victory slip from their grasp the supporters team found solace that in Mo Ruddy they had the Man of the Match and that they had also played their part in the goal of the season at The Showgrounds!