A depleted Armagh City side travelled to Inver Park in Larne on Saturday, coming home with a good point after an exhilarating 4-4 draw. While neither manager will have been thrilled to concede four goals, the torrid conditions made life difficult for both teams, and in the end the shared spoils seemed a fair result.
Missing injured regulars Ultan Lennon, Conor McAnallen and captain Liam Cullen, along with suspended trio Dara Noonan, Shea Campbell and Eamon Kelly, manager Marty Rice had to shuffle his pack against a Larne side who started the day in third position in the league.
Northern Ireland under-17 international Eoin Toal made his debut at the heart of the defence, and put in a strong performance against one of the Championship’s top attacking duos in Paul Maguire and Guillaume Keke.
The frantic early moments of the game proved a good indication of what was to follow, with early chances at either end. An early ball into the City box caused confusion in the defence, and John Connolly had to be alert to make a sharp save from John Donnelly.
City soon showed their attacking threat, as Shea McGerrigan first fired in a 30-yard shot that Larne keeper Paddy Flood turned around the post, while Stefan Lavery shot just wide moments later after good play by Andrew Hoey. McGerrigan then whipped a dangerous ball into the near post from the left wing, and defender Stuart McMullan was a relieved man to see his touch miss the pack post and go out for a corner.
McMullan opened the scoring at the other end on 12 minutes, following up his own initial header from a Gerard Gillan corner to prod the ball past Connolly who had reacted well to make the first save.
City were back on level terms within seconds, however, as Larne were caught with an incisive counter-attack. Philip Donnelly picked the ball up on the half-way line and immediately spotted Shea McGerrigan on the shoulder of the Larne defence. He timed his run to perfection and coolly slotted Donnelly’s perfect pass past Flood to make it 1-1.
Both defences were clearly struggling to come to grips with the effects of heavy rain and strong winds, with the ball hanging in the air at times and the poor surface making changes of direction a challenge.
Indeed, City’s leveler was soon cancelled out as Larne took the lead again from what seemed like nothing. A strong tackle by Gary Lawless in the centre of the pitch landed at the feet of Keke who delivered first time to captain Maguire who gave Connolly no chance with a composed finish. Maguire almost made it 3-1 just seconds later after City again failed to properly clear the ball, but after a neat turn he could only fire over the bar.
The frantic opening wasn’t finished, however, and City immediately stormed up the field looking for an equalizer, which duly arrived on 20 minutes. Shea McGerrigan’s whipped corner from the right eventually broke to Donnelly on the edge of the box. He dribbled into the area and while Flood palmed away his left-footed effort the ball broke straight to Lawless who fired into the bottom corner through a crowd of bodies first his first goal for the club.
Larne looked to have taken the lead almost immediately, from another set piece, when Keke headed home but the assistant referee saved City’s blushed by flagging after Gillan’s corner curled out of plan. Maguire then had a great chance to score his second, but Luke Grimley came to City’s rescue with a diving block.
Just after the half hour mark and City were again behind, as a long ball forward from Gillan caught the Armagh defence on its heels and this time Frenchman Keke, on-loan from Cliftonville, fired an unstoppable right-footed effort past Connolly.
City had a strong appeal for a penalty turned down on 38 minutes when Hoey was bundled over in the box, and to compound that disappointment the young winger had to come off injured with a hip injury resulting from the challenge.
Marty Rice’s charges came out for the second half in determined mood, and were on level terms once again within minutes. Shea McGerrigan made a strong run into the box and when he was tripped the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot. Lavery stepped up and saw his spot kick well saved by Flood, but Jordan Bell was quickest to react and made no mistake with the finish.
City were in the ascendancy as the half continued, with Philip Donnelly firing a free-kick just over the bar from 20 yards, before his namesake John Donnelly clipped an effort wide at the other end as a reminder of Larne’s attacking threat.
After being behind three times in the match, Armagh finally took the lead midway through the half after good work by Donnelly and Shea McGerrigan forced a corner on the left. Lawless’s inswinging cross was met by a Larne head and the ball flew into the net to the delight of the Armagh team and management.
It looked like City would hold on for all three points as Larne struggled to create many chances after Maguire had to go off injured, but with just minutes on the clock the sides were again on level terms after Gillan was allowed to stride through the midfield and pick out Donnelly. His first-time lob initially looked mishit, but after hanging in the air it dropped perfectly into the net at the far post past the helpless Connolly and Larne had salvaged a point.
In the end Marty Rice will be delighted with the fight displayed by his understrength side at the a venue where City have traditionally struggled, although will be disappointed that all three points slipped away in the dying moments.
Next up for City is a home tie in the Intermediate Cup on Saturday, 5 December, against Lisburn Rangers, kicking-off at 3pm at Holm Park.
Larne: Flood, Bradley, Rodgers, McGrandles, McMullan, Gillan, Donnelly, Maguire (McCabe 51), Keke, Robinson (McGonnell 59). Subs not used: Todd, E.Gillan, McClean.
Armagh City: Connolly, Lawless, McGerrigan, Grimley, Toal, Mallon, Hoey (Masterson 40), Bell, Lavery, Donnelly, McGerrigan. Subs not used: Carvill, Walker, McNamee, Keegan.