The old adage that football can be a cruel game has never been more apt than at Kilkeel on Saturday.
Carryduff Colts went 3-1 up with just four minutes to go against champions and league leaders Ballyvea, who are unbeaten in the league since August 2015, and it looked like one of the club’s greatest wins in senior football was secure.
But being champions, Ballyvea pulled a goal back with two minutes remaining but just as it looked like the visitors would hold on, the referee gave a bizarre free-kick right on the edge of the box for no apparent reason, and when the leaders’ star striker stepped up there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that a cruel blow was about to be struck – and so it turned out and we had to settle for a 3-3 draw.
You could have heard a pin drop in the dressing room after the game and while it mirrored the deep sense of disappointment felt by all 14 players who had given their all, it was also a strong indication as to how far this team has come to feel upset at not beating a team who haven’t lost in 18 months.
This was certainly a game of two halves with Carryduff coming out in the opening period like a whirlwind and playing some of the best football possible on such a poor pitch with its slope and heavy ground. Colts pinged the ball about the park and took a deserved lead after eight minutes when Calum McSorley burst through the middle, shaking off the attentions of two defenders, and fired a great shot into the back of the net.
With Kealan Devlin outstanding in the middle of the park alongside the equally good Fergus McBride, Carryduff were continually on the front foot and with Darragh Brownlee providing some magical touches and exciting play matched by a terrific work ethic, they were completely on top. Before the game, the defenders were made well aware of how dangerous Ballyvea can be particularly their star striker, but Conor Cassidy and Rory McDonnel never gave them a sniff of goal while Sparky Hegney and Paul Maguire won every challenge and showed great determination throughout.
Half way through the first half Colts were in heaven when they scored a second. McDonnell stepped out of the back and fed a great pass through to Sean Irwin. The big striker was still 40 yards from goal but he showed great pace, strength and skill to get away from two defenders and he drilled the ball into the corner of the net.
Colts continued to press forward with Stevie Doherty prominent on the left and Brownlee, Irwin and McSorley causing all sorts of problems and the home side were glad to hear the half time whistle as they had been seriously under the cosh for 45 minutes.
Carryduff knew that Ballyvea would come out in the second half all guns blazing and so it proved, helped by the fact they were now playing down the slope. They pulled a goal back 15 minutes into the second half and Colts decided to tighten up by bringing on Conor Magee for the tiring Brownlee who had put in a major shift, while Jamie Maynes came on for Sean Irwin. Both subs brought a great deal of energy to the side and they continued to rebuff the Ballyvea attacks.
Goalkeeper Odhran Devlin also came into his own during this period, rushing from his line at one stage to make a brave save and taking a head knock in the process but thankfully he recovered to resume his place between the sticks.
Ballyvea take a very direct approach and their biggest weapon is brilliantly executed corners from the right side by their left back which drop in on the goalkeeper every time and with a number of players over six-foot it is usually a lethal weapon. They won a series of corners throughout the half but Colts defended heroically with Odhran Devlin punching clear, his brother Kealan and McDonnell, Cassidy, Maguire and Hegney all wining crucial challenges and sub Magee heading brilliantly off the line on the post with his first touch.
Colts then brought on 18-year-old Arron Waddell with 12 minutes remaining for McSorley who had run himself to a standstill. And it was the youngster who thought he was the hero of the day when he raced clear of the Ballyvea defence on the 86th minute and drove the ball cooly and confidently into the corner of the net to make it 3-1.
Any thoughts that the game was now won were quickly dispelled when Ballyvea finally broke the heroic defensive resistance they had faced to make it 3-2. They then had a goal disallowed for offside and it was immediately after that, with their supporters and bench screaming at the referee, that an inexplicable free kick was given right on the edge of the box for a perfectly good tackle by McDonnell and it felt inevitable that the ball would end up in the net – which it did.
The disappointment still resonates, but this team has shown such terrific character, resilience and above all skill this season to suggest they won’t give up on this quest for their first ever Premier League title. Ballyvea are still 11 points clear with Colts having two games in hand. But they have only one of their last six games on that difficult home pitch which gives them an advantage on the basis that they know how to play it. Their travels will include games again three other title contenders including a trip to Lough Moss where a sense of injustice is likely to drive on the home team.
On the face of it, this was a great result for Carryduff Colts against a really good team but it could have been so much better. But it’s not over yet…….
Colts: O.Devlin, Hegney, Maguire, McDonnell, Cassidy, McBride, McSorley (Waddell), Devlin, Irwin (Maynes), Doherty, Brownlee (Magee)