** Photos from Johnny Brisbane, more available on the Cookstown facebook page
Cookstown made serious inroads in the Ulster Premier League with three wins in seven days while results elsewhere saw rivals drop points. It means long-time leaders Lisnagarvey are back in range, 11 points clear but with four extra games played.
The free-scoring Co Tyrone side demolished Civil Service, who had started the day in third place, 9-3 to continue their rise. They were ahead inside four minutes as Greg Allen finished off good work by Timmy Smyth and Mark Crooks. A Keith Black penalty stroke increased the lead and further goals from Paul Thompson, Raymond Miller, Smyth and a great reverse strike from Mark Crooks put them 6-0 up at half-time.
Allen made it 7-0 at the beginning of the second half before Service replied with three quick goals from Peter Johnston, Conor Allison and Chris Barnes but Black’s second stroke and Andy Barbour’s goal on the final whistle completed the win.
The big win came in midweek at Havelock Park as Banbridge were undone by Gareth Cuddy in the closing minutes. Ross McCandless went close early on, rattling the crossbar before Bann took the lead from Ross Beattie’s reverse-stick cross which Scott Caruth tapped in at the back post. Allen levelled by half-time and they survived a near miss when Ian Hughes prevented Dane Ward’s diving deflection.
But in spite of a late sin-binning, Cookstown scrambled their winner for a 2-1 result and they augmented their run further with a 4-2 success over Andy Smyth’s emerging Annadale side last Saturday.
Crooks opened the scoring from Stephen Sloan’s assist and he had a hat-trick by half-time, his third a nicely crafted shot over an advancing Justin Hool for 3-0 at half-time.
James Cox’ corner drag gave Dale a sniff but Smyth bundled over the line to restore the three-goal wedge. Cox got another back with another corner flick late on but too late to affect the result.
Dale, though, had played a major part in opening the door for Cookstown to have a sniff of the title as they defeated Lisnagarvey on the Comber Road in midweek 2-1.
Garvey bossed the first half while Dale were down to nine at one stage but summoned a big second half fightback, eventually taking the game in the closing 30 seconds.
Lisnagarvey bounced back with a 4-0 win over Kilkeel but the league now looks set to be decided in their closing three rounds of the league as they are scheduled to play Cookstown on March 10 and then again at Coolnafranky.
Wednesday night’s 0-0 tie between Inst and NICS in front of a big crowd has added more intrigue to the race for the IHL places. Instonians got back into the mix with a 3-2 away win against Banbridge last Saturday with all the goals coming in the first half.
Player-coach Mark Irwin created the winner when he found himself free in the circle and while Aaron Appleton closed well, he squared to John Watson to score. Bann had earlier built a 2-0 lead with Ross McCandless’ corner and one from Ben Cosgrove putting them in a decent position. Goals from Watson and Irwin, though, had the game level in jig-time to pull off the result.
The pair of losses has left Bann in a share for second place with Cookstown – who have three games in hand – and NICS who are hoping to breach the big five.
A 2-0 win over Belfast Harlequins on Saturday has helped them up to 21 points but Mossley’s bid has been badly disrupted as third place has now dissipated, dropping to a share of seventh as the clubs around them caught up on fixtures.
Men’s Ulster Premier League (played): 1. Lisnagarvey (13) 32pts (+44) 2. Cookstown (9) 21pts (+39) 3. Banbridge (12) 21pts (+21) 4. NICS (14) 21pts (-4) 5. Annadale (10) 19pts (+8) 6. Instonians (12) 18pts (+1) 7. Kilkeel (13) 16pts (-7) 8. Mossley (13) 16pts (-17) 9. Belfast Harlequins (13) 6pts (-42) 10. North Down (13) 3pts (-43)