Ballynanty Rovers have won the Lawson Cup again, ending a six-year trophy drought with an extra-time victory over Pike Rovers.
Outgoing Ballynanty management team, Damien Conway and Garrett Ryan, had done their homework for this one, by bedding in a new 4-1-4-1 formation in the their final league encounter with Summerville Rovers. The northsiders, who shipped four goals in that game, looked far less brittle here, with defender Danny McInerney doing his best Gary Griffin impression to keep tabs on Pike’s Colin Daly.
Although Daly varied his position laterally to escape McInerney’s attentions and pick up the ball in space, he and his teammates met a resolute Balla backline, from which all four members performed admirably.
Darragh Hughes, arguably the pick of the four, created the opener in the 21st minute. The right back was already given the freedom to send in a wonderful low delivery minutes earlier to serve as a warning to Pike. That warning was not heeded, as Sean O’Callaghan failed to conclusively win what looked like a routine aerial duel, allowing Liam Brock to execute a breathtaking looping finish over the head of Gary Neville.
O’Callaghan was immediately removed from the pitch by manager Mick Sheil, in favour of Paddy O’Malley, which led to a major reshuffle of positions; O’Malley took up a left wing position, Davy Ryan moved to the right, Wayne O’Donovan dropped back to right full, and Wayne Colbert moved into the centre of defence.
It was undoubtedly a harsh decision from Sheil, but the manner of the goal did conjure up memories of one Colm Enright, who received the Player of the Year award on the 2012 day that Pike last met – and bested – Ballynanty in a Lawson final.
Daly, who appeared to play more as out-an-out striker in a 4-4-2 in the second half, was joined up top by Garry Higgins just before the hour mark. Higgins’ impact on the game was immediate, powering a snapshot just over Stephen McNamara’s crossbar after a half-cleared O’Malley cross.
Pike would come closer with 20 minutes remaining, when Higgins’ right-wing cross won a corner for the FAI Junior Cup finalists. O’Malley’s inswinging delivery was matched by the run of Pa Mullins from the back post, but the centre back was unlucky to direct the ball onto the face of the crossbar with his instep.
Ballynanty spurned a glorious late chance to put the game to bed, as Pike pushed for an equaliser. Liam Brock intercepted a pass out from the back and fed Kevin Nolan, who moved it on to the unmarked substitute Derek Daly on the left of the area. Daly struck it well, but the ball crept agonisingly wide of the far post.
Incredibly, Pike then hit the woodwork again in the third minute of injury time. Goalkeeper McNamara was one of several players who scrambled to reach a speculative ball over the Balla defence. The ball squirmed loose to Higgins, who, with the goal at his mercy, hit the post with a left footed effort. Daly looked certain to deposit the rebound from the penalty spot, but the spinning ball bounced away from him and Balla cleared their lines!
Just when it looked like Balla had repeated the scoreline from their 2010 final victory over Pike, Higgins finally made one count in seventh minute of injury time. The northsiders will rue the fact that the Pike striker was allowed to rise highest in the six-yard box to head home Shane Walsh’s corner. They will also query the lengthy period of additional time, in a half that only contained five subs and one admittedly protracted injury to David Dunphy.
The game was ultimately decided by two massive moments either side of the break in extra-time. First, a mazy dribble from Daly through the middle teed up O’Malley at the back post. The Pike midfielder squared it to the unmarked Higgins, who lifted his finish over.
Then, shortly after the restart, another central dribble, this time from Ronan Ryan, led to a left footed strike from the Balla midfielder that was thwarted on its goalbound path by the hand of Wayne O’Donovan. Bafflingly, O’Donovan received only a yellow card. Dunphy dispatched the resulting penalty kick, low to Neville’s right.
Although O’Donovan didn’t see red, Steven McGann did – for a second yellow card in the game’s closing stages, after a late challenge on Ryan. A touch of delayed gratification for Ballynanty here, as McGann was very lucky to escape dismissal in the August league fixture between the two sides at Shelbourne Park.
Ballynanty therefore have claimed what I believe to be their Lawson Cup version of la decima, after a six-year trophy drought. What a wonderful way to send off Conway and Ryan, who had to taste the devastation of final defeats on several occasions, including against St. Michaels in the 2014 FAI Junior Cup. It’s also fantastic to see a tight-knit group of young players, blooded as youths at the same club, stay together and claim a trophy at last.
Pike, meanwhile, have reached the end of a long season empty-handed, after coming very close on a number of fronts; one point off the league winners, beaten in the FAI Junior Cup final and beaten in the Lawson Cup final. Although injuries, fatigue and a tight squad eventually did for them, the players and their management team should hold their heads high despite the ultimate disappointment.
L. Brock 21′, Dunphy (pen) 112′; Higgins 90+7′
Man of the Match