Dungannon Youth 3 Sky Blues U11 3
Magherafelt Sky Blues U11s couldn’t have chosen a tougher game in the 2nd round of the NI Boys FA Cup, travelling away to a much fancied Dungannon Youth side.
Despite matching their illustrious neighbours in the opening exchanges, the ‘Wee’ Sky Blues found themselves 1 down after 5 minutes, following a cross from the right and a glancing header at the near post.
The Sky Blues were playing their first 11-a-side game of the season and it was obvious that they needed time to adjust to the bigger format, particularly the Sky Blues centre backs who were getting pulled out of position and were finding it difficult to get tight to the mobile Dungannon strikers.
The pattern of the first half continued with the Sky Blues working tirelessly for each other, pressing the ball all over the pitch, and causing real problems for Dungannon with their dangerous wing play.
Jamie Gribben and Aaron Donnelly tormented the Dungannon backline throughout the first half and Ryan Lennox put in a tireless display as the lone Sky Blues striker.
Dungannon punished the indecision in the Sky Blues defence when they played a ball directly through the centre of the away team’s defence to release their centre forward who scored with a crisp shot that the unlucky Shea McGuckin could only get fingertips to.
Immediately following the restart Ryan Lennox broke clear of the Dungannon defence but as he was poised to pull the trigger a last ditch challenge cleared the ball when a goal seemed certain.
Disaster struck once more when Jarlath McWilliams slipped to let Dungannon through to register what everyone thought was now an unassailable three goal lead.
But this young Sky Blues team never knows when they are beaten and they pushed Dungannon back for the rest of the half.
A lifeline was grasped when Aidan McCluskey, who must have covered every blade of grass on the pitch, crossed into a packed box and Jamie Gribben turned and lifted the ball over the despairing Dungannon keeper to give the ‘Wee’ Blues a glimmer of hope.
The home team were now feeling the effects of incessant Sky Blues pressure and they cracked once more just before half time when the dynamic Aidan McClusky fed the ball wide to the speedy Gribben who placed a glorious cross to the far post where Aaron Donnelly powered an unstoppable header into the net - Halftime: Dungannon Youth 3 v 2 Magherafelt Sky Blues
It was obvious that both teams had learned lessons from a heart-stopping first-half and they played out a hard fought second half. The Sky Blues back four intelligently adjusted to the full sized pitch and full backs Caolan Crozier and Daniel Robinson were rock solid never letting the Dungannon wingers have an inch of space.
Jon McAllister was now mopping up every attack and Jarlath McWilliams was a tower of strength breaking up even the slightest hint of a chance.
The Sky Blues were also controlling the centre of midfield, Ross Speers and Rory Clarke tracked the dangerous Dungannon playmakers all over the pitch and Aidan McCluskey grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and drove the Sky Blues forward.
Having run himself into the ground,
Ryan Lennox was replaced by Darragh Wade who immediately took up were Lennox left off.
Darragh Wade made an immediate impact when he sprung the Dungannon defence and went through one on one with the keeper his shot was scrambled away and from the resulting corner the Sky Blues drew level.
The corner fell to Rory Clarke whose shot could only be pushed out by the Dungannon keeper and like a predator he is Darragh Wade followed up to make no mistake and send the travelling fans into raptures on the sidelines.
Both teams fought hard right to the end and the game was played at a furious pace with every player fighting to gain the sliver of luck that might win the game.
Extra-time was a nail-biting affair and both teams fought hard to ensure the match would be ended before the dreaded penalty shoot-out.
But with seconds remaining in the first period of extra-time the Sky Blues hearts were broken when Dungannon scored what was to be the decisive goal.
The ball was played wide to the left hand side and the home team striker finished clinically to give Shea McGuckin no chance.
The Sky Blues still never gave up and pushed Dungannon right to the last second and finished the game with a series of corners but they just couldn’t find the goal that their performance wholeheartedly deserved.
Every single player from 1 to 16 deserves real credit for the fight, desire and level of performance that was displayed and management could not be more proud of the standards and commitment shown from such a young team.
But as ever there comes the selection of a man-of-the-match and, despite such a difficult decision, it goes to Aidan McCluskey whose energy and drive pushed the Sky Blues forward from start to finish.