(Willowbank won 4-2 on pens aet)
THE history books show that Enniskillen Rangers, managed by Michael Kerr, are one of the great junior football teams of all time. Like Immaculata and Harryville Homers before them they stand proudly in exalted company as one of the few sides who have managed to capture the prestigious Irish Junior Cup for three years running.
That takes some doing but what the history books won’t perhaps show is just how close Kerr and his team came to clinching a record-breaking fourth consecutive crown at Portadown’s Shamrock Park last night.
When Rangers hotshot Jay Keenan cancelled out Eamon Hughes’s disputed first half penalty with just 12 minutes remaining, it looked increasingly likely that history beckoned for the Enniskillen men.
Willowbank had shaded the verdict up to this point but Keenan’s stretching back-post finish felt like a game-changer. For a brief time it appeared that the pendulum had swung back in Rangers’ favour however when Kerr received his marching orders for what appeared a reckless challenge on Willowbank substitute Declan Gill shortly afterwards the outcome was firmly back in the proverbial melting pot.
Kerr’s dismissal handed his opponents the required oxygen to try and press home their numerical advantage in extra-time which they nearly did when substitute Ryan McCabe darted clear on the left only to be foiled by Rangers keeper Gareth Barbour.
But the four-time winners remained resolute in defence and their fate and that of their opponents rested in a dreaded nerve-jangling penalty shootout.
Hughes, one of Willowbank’s star performers on the night, blasted his team ahead before Keenan made it 1-1 by finding Ciaran Kelly’s bottom right corner.
Gary Manson then made it 2-1 for the challengers and after the experienced Neil Coulter smashed his spot-kick the wrong side of a post, Kelly, the Willowbank goalkeeper, turned up the heat by duly making it 3-1.
Ciaran Smith replied for Rangers but Willowbank had a firm grip of their destiny and after substitute Liam Prigent netted, Kelly denied Richie Johnston to claim the prestigious silverware for the first time.
Rangers’ remarkable race had been run but there was now a new kid in town and few can argue that over the course of the 110 minutes of football that Willowbank had shaded the verdict.
Their celebrations – even without supporters – showed just how much it meant to be crowned Junior Cup champions and that greater hunger and desire was very evident from the first whistle.
Willowbank had seized the advantage two minutes into first half stoppage-time when Hughes blasted his spot-kick past Gareth Barbour after Kerr had been harshly penalised following a collision with Ciaran Winchester.
But an improving Rangers conjured up an equaliser with just 12 minutes remaining when, following a superb run and cross by Christopher Currie, Keenan was on hand to steer the ball into a gaping net.
Extra-time failed to produce a winner and in the dreaded shootout it was Willowbank who held their nerve to deny Rangers their special place in history.
FULL REPORT AND REACTION IN NEXT WEEK’S FERMANAGH HERALD