Newry Promoted to Championship

When you need your team to put in two performances across 180 minutes that are good enough to gain promotion, Darren Mullen can’t have been any more proud of his Newry City AFC squad last week.  

Having utterly dominated Armagh at home on Tuesday, they eased their way to a second leg victory and a 7-1 aggregate win in some style at Holm Park on Friday night.

While it would have been easy and fully understandable for Newry to have taken their foot off the gas in the second half of Friday night’s clash having played out a goalless first period, they did the opposite.

And while Armagh did managed to find the back of the net to make it 5-1 on aggregate, City simply went right back up the pitch to score twice more as if to reinforce the point that they were streets ahead of their opponents.

With Mullen understandably sticking with the same starting 11 that had so decisively eased into a 4-0 first leg lead earlier in the week, City were on the front foot again at Holm Park.

However, while they had taken a 2-0 lead into half-time at The Showgrounds on Tuesday, Newry were unable to find the back of the net in the opening period on the road as Armagh looked somewhat more solid than they had done three nights previously.

In saying that, Newry looked in complete control with Armagh creating very little by the way of clear-cut chances and failing to get an early goal that may have made things interesting for the neutral had they pulled one back.

With John Boyle and Paddy Mooney dominant at the heart of the Newry defence, the visitors were always a threat on the counter-attack and had two decent chances to find the back of the net in the first 45 minutes.

The opening opportunity arrived just after the quarter hour when Keith Johnston, the man who had done the bulk of the damage on Tuesday night with a second half brace to essentially put the outcome of the tie beyond any reasonable doubt, let fly with a low 20-yard drive that flew just wide of the left hand post.

While that was a more speculative effort that would have maybe been fortunate enough to beat former Newry keeper John Connolly in the Armagh goal, Newry’s best chance of the half was spurned on 22 minutes with Mark Hughes the guilty party.

Patient build-up play saw the ball eventually arrive to striker Mark McCabe on the right flank. He measured his cross where captain Hughes was steaming in from the left side and with only Connolly to beat, the midfielder headed over the bar when he should have scored.

However, he would make up for that miss in the second half of the match – a second half where City would take control and ram home their superiority over the two legs.

It took less than 15 minutes after the restart for Newry to go in front and to leave Armagh needing to score six goals in half an hour to win the tie.

Once more it was Keith Johnston involved when he beat the Armagh offside trap with his pace down the right hand side and when he centred low, that allowed Decky Carville to meet the ball and force it over the line from close range to send the Newry support – whose numbers made up over 75 per cent of those in attendance at Holm Park on Friday night – into delight, knowing that their side was almost there.

It could have been 2-0 on the night and 6-0 on aggregate on the hour mark when once more Johnston got the better of former Newry defender Stephen Hutchinson on the right to cross where this time Mark McCabe was on the end of it, but his header from straight at Connolly.

The home side did get themselves level on the night with their only goal over the course of the 180 minutes arriving 66 minutes into this match. It was a pretty simple goal that owed to one piece of slack marking as opposed to Armagh cutting Newry open in any way, shape or form.

Substitute Sean Mallon collected the ball on the left to curl a looping cross into the box where veteran striker Shea Campbell was left unchallenged to head past a helpless Kieran Gordon in the Newry goal from close range and make it 1-1 on the night.

While it would have been easy for Newry to simply take their foot off the gas and coast over the line to victory and their deserved place in the Championship, they had other ideas on their mind and saw the game out in style with two goals in the following five minutes.

With Armagh continuing to persist with a high defensive line that just begged to be taken advantage off with the pace of Newry’s front line, the visitors cut them open again less than a minute after Campbell’s goal.

Another perfectly-executed through ball from Jimmy Walker set Carville racing free to bear down one-on-one with Connolly and he kept his cool and composure to slot past the keeper from just inside the box for his second goal of the night and his third over the course of the two play-off matches.

Things got even better for City with 20 minutes still left to play as Hughes got his name on the scoresheet with a goal that his performance over the two legs warranted.

With the once-again sizeable City support already in party mode with a full range of celebratory songs from their repertoire getting an airing, Hughes only served to increase the smiles on Newry faces with a clinical finish.

For the umpteenth time, Johnston broke free down the right hand side and, much like his effort in the first half, Hughes had come steaming in from the opposite flank to get into a goalscoring position. However this time when Johnston picked him out with an inch-perfect ball, Hughes made no mistake with a bullet diving header that was the icing on the cake for Newry.

At 3-1 up in the match and 7-1 to the good in the tie, Newry were never going to lose on the night as Armagh heads dropped and frustrations, from Sean Mallon in particular, began to show with a number of niggly incidents.

However, Newry kept their cool and the only thing that would have put the cherry on top of the icing of the cake would have been a farewell goal for Sean McMullan in his final appearance for the club ahead of a move to Mid-Ulster Intermediate A side Windmill Stars under their new manager for next season, Marcus Woods.

The veteran forward, who hit 35 goals last time but has found it difficult to get a run in the side this season, almost did it with a low strike that flashed wide of the left hand post late on.

However, it mattered little in the grand scheme of things as emotional celebrations erupted at the final whistle between all involved with Newry City AFC.

Three promotions in four seasons is a wonderful achievement in anyone’s book, but to do it after beginning a club from scratch and an entirely new squad of players is a different kettle of fish altogether.

Armagh City: Connolly, Kerr, Hutchinson, Toal, Lennon, Montgomery, Kelly, McSorely, Hynds, Camara, Campbell

Subs: Mallon, Grimley, Rice, Boyle, Graham

Newry City AFC: Gordon, McArdle, McCaul, Mooney, Boyle, McCann, Walker, Johnston, McCabe, Carville, Hughes

Subs: Patton, Grant, Havern, McMullan, Mullen

By Gareth McCullough