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BLUES LEAD PLAY-OFF CHARGE

Release Date: 24/08/2012

Linfield will contest NIWFA Premiership football next summer. A dramatic 5-4 victory over Championship runners-up Loughgall Lakers in a pulsating promotion-relegation play-off tie secured their position.

All of a sudden the summer sun shone again for Linfield, the blues of a struggling season blown away in an ill-fitting act in a contest that had demanded attention to the final whistle. Lakers’ defiant endeavour ended on the cruelty of an unavoidable own goal. They will have to wait another season for the opportunity to gain Premier membership.

Life in the Premiership was a constant struggle for Linfield. As the season neared its end their tenancy was threatened by a play-off eviction notice. The Lakers were preparing to become the new residents; to replace a team that had competed keenly but, which among the hierarchy, were out of their depth. Only painfully thin Fermanagh Mallards, relegated long before the season’s end, prevented Linfield from slipping down the rankings.

The summer’s campaign tested the ability of manager Billy Clarke and his coaches to develop a side capable of remaining in the top flight of ladies football. With only four points gathered from nine games Linfield were in freefall; if not facing automatic relegation, then expulsion through the relegation-promotion play-off.

Loughgall Lakers, who tasted a brief spell of Premiership football the previous year following promotion, were forced to beat a hasty retreat as the demands of a highly competitive division became too challenging. But having savoured action at the top they pressed hard for a quick return. However hopes of climbing back to Premiership were only going to be through the play-off. The winning of the Championship never arose. That title belonged to Cliftonville ever since the first ball was kicked.

Incredibly Stevie Hatfield’s charges overhauled Armagh City in the dying action of fixtures to snatch another belated promotion opportunity, winning their final three games, including a vital strike against their City rivals, to snatch second place by two points.

So, Linfield and Lakers’ fates were decided in a pulsating two-legged shoot-out. The Blues held no fears for the Championship enthusiasts. The flavour of that one-year tenure in the Premiership had created a yearning for a swift return and they were raring to go. With their desire to regain Premiership entry and Linfield’s even greater desire to remain, the scene was set for a fascinating footballing duel.

The Billy Neill Playing Fields staged the first leg where Lakers staked an early claim with two tremendous goals from the tricky Rayza Souza, who has been building a reputation for herself in her club. Linfield were on red alert, but it was Amber that turned out to be the colour of success. Amber Dempster, who was to have a major impact on the tie, notched a precious first half goal to set the half-time score at 2-1 in Loughgall’s favour.

However the Armagh side’s first half joy began to fade under the remorseless onslaught as Linfield, aware of their precarious situation, chased a telling result. Their fortitude and determination paid off when Ashleigh McKee drilled in a brilliant equaliser midway through the second half. Nicole Grey’s pin-point corner was then lashed to the net by the euphoric Codie Bruton to give the Blues a slender 3-2 lead going to the Country Park. It was to prove a significant hit, the defining moment of Linfield’s season.

Armoured with tremendous home support the Lakers presented a testing hurdle for the Blues. And what an exhibition of tense, thrilling and stirring football that was served up by both sides. Dempster could have been forgiven for thinking she had saved her side when she chalked up her second goal of the tie to make the aggregate score 4-2 in Linfield’s favour. No way! The Lakers fought feverishly to remain in contention and it seemed they might have banished Linfield from the Premiership and completed their take-over bid when levelling the aggregate score at 2-2 and leaping ahead on away goals.

However fifteen matches of endeavour by both teams over the summer came down to a millisecond of harsh misfortune. Danielle Ennis’s back-flick flipped off a home defender and into the net to make it 5-4 for Linfield. This time there was no way back for the dauntless Lakers. There had to be a loser, but both teams deserve full credit for the production of a thrilling two games that fired up respective supporters and were brilliantly contested.

Championship/Div. 1
Maybe justice was served – maybe not! St. Matthew’s, whose nightmarish defeat by Larne in their final game cost them the Division One title, have now reached their goal. A crushing 7-3 aggregate success over Donegal Celtic has opened the door to the Championship, the memory of that miserable setback at Larne now forgotten.

The Saints will look back on a season that promised so much but very nearly collapsed around them. Having bettered eventual champs Valley Rangers over the two matches, drawing 2-2 and winning 4-2, it seemed the Saints would conquer. But, not only having gifted the title to the Rangers, they lost their division cup encounter to Valley – and then with the road to the Championship barred by Larne, a side they had beaten 3-1 the first time around, they fell flat on their faces, as the Co. Antrim team, this time made of sterner stuff, stunned St. Matt’s 5-3 to condemn them to the promotion-relegation play-off.

Many sympathise with Donegal Celtic, whose season has been one of trial and tribulation and dedicated officials deserve many plaudits for their infinite efforts to preserve its future. Unfortunately any rebuilding now will have to be done in Division One as they swopped places with St. Matt’s.

Goal machine Rachel Rogan, whose twenty league goals made the Saints rise to the Championship possible, fired in a punishing first leg hat-trick to effectively reduce the return leg to a formality. With a strong 3-0 lead St. Matthew’s, although being held 4-3 in the second game, had matters in control. Aine Flynn’s double and one apiece from Eadaoin Ni Chiarrain sent their overall score soaring to seven, whilst Louise Docherty, Mary Shepherd and Lauren Milligan kissed the Championship goodbye, their three goals ending the aggregate score at 7-3.

Div 1/Div 2
Sion Swifts will join Division Two champions Lisburn in Division One. They were much too powerful for Division One strugglers Banbridge, romping home 12-0 aggregate winners.
This means that half of Division One will consist of different teams next summer, the four newcomers to the section being relegated Donegal Celtic and Coleraine, and promoted Lisburn and Sion Swifts.

Div 2/Div 3
The PSNI’s 6-5 aggregate win over Moyola Park was worthy. But what’s on the horizon for the police ladies? They will be under no illusions about the task ahead. Having spent a few seasons in the lower regions of the League, they will enter Division Two as a side that could struggle to make an impact, however meritorious their promotion has been. It can be argued that they were the best of ordinary teams that continuously choked in the slipstream of extraordinary champions Newry City, the inability of the rest leaving an opening for PSNI to finally make a breakthrough.

Nothing though can belittle their achievement in winning their play-off against Moyola. Claire McCracken and Leola McErlean, opening the tie with two superb first half goals thrust Moyola into a promising position and at 2-0 down the police bid seemed to be dying in its infancy. But it was a galvanised PSNI side that took to the pitch in the second half. Two goals from the reliable Leigh Chapman and one from Eimear Magill were exchanged with another McCracken goal to end an absorbing contest at 3-3.

The second leg at Newforge Lane was just as exciting as the first, two goals from Charlene Kenning and McErlean maintaining Moyola’s precarious grip in Division One for a time, but three PSNI goals saw them celebrate a move up the charts.

By Sammy Martin

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