Men’s Irish Senior Cup semi-finals
Monkstown’s bid to end a 97-year wait for the Irish Senior Cup is still intact as they were the big winners on semi-final day, putting a subdued Banbridge to the sword at Belfield this afternoon.
The Co Down side were blitzed in the minutes around half-time as Gareth Watkins rocketed past Gareth Lennox just before half-time before Richard Sykes picked out the top-right corner in the 44th minute with a cracking drag-flick.
Andrew Ward – only back from Germany a day earlier – made it three soon after from close range following a superb baseline move between Frank Ryan and Watkins and, while Bann drew some late saves from Dave Fitzgerald, it was plain-sailing to the finish line.
Indeed, they had the chance to work their whole bench and the extra two hours rest compared to Cookstown – 3-2 winners over Annadale – could be another little edge on an intense weekend.
Initially, the game was slow to get going. Bruce McCandless’ ghosted down the left for a few bright openings, winning a corner which was eventually scrambled off Fitzgerald’s pads.
Ward had a big shout for a stroke after Stephen Cole’s incision, miscuing but claiming his stick had been checked as he shot. Kyle Good had the clearest opening but he did not realise how much space he had in the centre of the circle, ballooning over a snatched shot from Cole’s pass.
But Good created the opener with 90 seconds left before the short whistle, “lancing the boil” in the words of RTE’s David Medcalf to pick out Watkins on the 25 from the left-edge of the circle. He had plenty to do but roasted his marker past the left-foot and crushed an absolute bullet from the right-edge.
And the Town took the momentum into the second half, Billy McEnery going close twice while Sykes rocked the roof of the net.
When Ryan and Watkins’ quick hands around the t-spot opened Bann up again on the left, it was pretty much game over; the latter’s flip hit a defender on the line but Ward was not going to wait for a whistle and nudged in for 3-0.
It took most of the sting from the tie though David Cole was exceptional in the back four for the Town. Fitzgerald denied Ross and Scott McCandless late on, the latter with an excellent double-save but they were belated efforts to get on terms of a reasonably one-sided semi-final.
The second final four encounter initially followed a similar path, Cookstown – inspired by Ian Sloan – racing into a 3-0 lead but a sting in the tail almost materialised as Annadale battered the Co Tyrone side’s circle and almost forced extra-time.
After the sky-blue hordes had vacated the scene, this tie was played in a slightly eerie quiet, a slow-burner as the drama cranked into gear in the second half.
Mark Crooks broke the deadlock when ‘the silent assassin’ (another Medcalf-ism) Andy Barbour picked up a Ewan Butler rebound just outside the circle. His pass looked innocuous enough initially but was laced with guile as it wrong-footed the Dale defence with two men unmarked wide of the right post with Crooks left with the simplest of tasks to touch in.
Irish international Keith Black went off a minute later, a potentially huge blow to the Town’s hopes, but they made light of it as Sloan battled to take the ball away from goalkeeper Jonny Moore, keeping the ball in by mere centimetres.
He flipped the ball across goal, Neil Hamilton’s forward defence missed the knee-high ball but Stuart Smyth kept his eye on the prize and volleyed in on his reverse for 2-0 after 19 minutes.
If that goal was about tenacity, the third just after the break was unadulterated brilliance. Sloan won the ball on the edge of his own circle, carried it to halfway, exchanged a pass with Smyth who returned the favour.
He laid the ball into space down the right where Sloan took it on again and fired a cross to the waiting Smyth for a fine touch at the near post.
Dale responded immediately, Peter Caruth sweeping in a Neil Hamilton slip from the corner injector’s position. Caruth was central to the Carryduff side’s resurgence, dropping deeper to get on the ball more and, with 20 minutes left, his side were fully back in contention.
It came from an Andy Williamson pearler. Gareth Kidd burrowed his way down the right, squaring to Williamson who bullied past one defender onto his reverse and left Ian Hughes standing as the power on his reverse left no chance for the reds keeper.
Pressure piled on and corners came and went in a thrilling closing phase but no further goal came and Annadale’s wait for an ISC crown continues while Cookstown have a chance to wipe out the painful memories of their 2009 whitewashing by Pembroke.
Men’s Irish Senior Cup semi-finals: Monkstown 3 (Gareth Watkins, Richard Sykes, Andrew Ward) Banbridge 0; Cookstown 3 (Stuart Smyth 2, Mark Crooks) Annadale 2 (Peter Caruth, Andy Williamson)
Final, Sunday: Monkstown vs Cookstown, 3.30pm, Belfield