A late Aoife Lennon hatrick gave Newry City a 3-1 victory against a brave Sion Swifts team in the Championship Cup final at Holm Park, Armagh.
As you would expect of a cup final, the game started slowly, with the defences on top in the early stages. Sion were seeing slightly more of the ball than their opponents, but both teams were restricted to very few long range, half chances. However Sion managed to build a bit of pressure which resulted in the first notable chance of the game, which came after 20 minutes when the ball was crossed into striker Lauren Brennan, but a brilliant covering tackle by ex Northern Ireland international midfielder Lennon blocked the shot, which was then cleared to safety.
Sion gained a little bit of momentum, and had another two chances from tight angles, but both efforts resulted in good saves from Newry goalkeeper Linda Meehan. However they were reminded of the danger posed by the opposition when Newry broke up the pitch and Northern Ireland U19 midfielder Moya Feehan hit a rasping drive from 25 yards that cannoned off the post with goalkeeper Naomh Barr well beaten.
The next 10 minutes seen Newry come into the game, get the ball down and control the game, with much of the play coming through the midfield pairing of Lennon and Republic of Ireland international midfielder Grace Murray. However they found it difficult to break down a terrific Sion back line, with full backs Teresa Burns and Clanagh Connor particularly impressing. On 37 minutes, the defence made yet another tackle, and Sion broke up the pitch, three passes later the ball was played into the feet of the tireless Brennan, who this time made no mistake and produced a fantastic right footed finish past the goal keeper into the top corner to give the Swifts a deserved, if slightly unexpected 1-0 lead at the break.
Newry started the second half all guns blazing, determined to get the equaliser. The first chance of the half came after 53 min, with the ball being threaded through to the dangerous Feehan, who hit a powerful low drive on the turn. However she could only hit it straight at Barr, who was able to save with her feet. This was quickly followed by chances for Lennon and Murray, but both efforts were straight into the keepers arms.
Newry really started to up the pressure after 70 minutes, when Murray got the ball in her own half and went on a mazy run past three Sion players and would have been through, had not centre back Lorraine Conver taken one for the team and hauled her down just outside the area. She received a yellow for her efforts, but Murray could only put the free kick over the bar.
During the resulting play, Murray was again in possession running at the Sion defence, and was smashed into by Conner, who injured herself and conceded a free kick in the process, which was beautifully dispatched by Lennon over the wall and into the top corner, giving Barr no chance of saving it.
With the scores tied at 1-1 after 74 minutes, Sion did everything they could to stem the flow of the Newry City attack, and were able to create one or two half chances themselves, but the killer blow came after 82 minutes, when the ball was crossed to the back corner of the penalty area were Lennon was running in, and she blasted a confident and accurate half volley into the net past Barr to give Newry the lead.
Two minutes later Lennon completed her hat-trick and sealed the win by dispatching another free kick over the stretching Barr to make it 3-1 to Newry.
The final whistle sparked wild celebrations from the Newry players and coaching staff, who will be delighted with their first major trophy of the season, but they still have plenty to do with the league, and with it promotion to the premiership, up for grabs if they can get three points from their final two games. This is something which they will be very confident of doing if they can match the performances they have produced so far this season.
Sion can also take a lot of positives from this game. They managed to get themselves in front, and lead for most the game. They were ultimately undone by a strike of international class. They showed some outstanding defending all over the pitch, from the tireless Brennan chasing down lost cause after lost cause, to Conver and McGinley at the back repeatedly putting their bodies on the line.
They currently lead the Championship, but have played two games more than Newry, who only need that one win to secure the title. This would result in Sion having a playoff with second from bottom of the premiership Shankill Predators for a chance to get promoted, and if they can replicate the determination they showed tonight they have every reason to be positive.
Report & Photographs : Ben Hanna