EDDIE Clifford was the man of the moment as Freebooters A kept their hopes of a domestic treble firmly on track.
Clifford pounced for the only goal of the game as the Blues got the better of Stoneyford United and booked their place in the Maher Shield final.
The midfielder picked the perfect time to suck the life out of the hosts, grabbing what proved to be the winner after just eight minutes on Sunday afternoon. First to Damien Raggett’s long throw-in, Clifford found time to turn on the corner of the six yard box and, through a sea of bodies, squeeze off a low shot that crept inside Darren Rowe’s right hand post
Clifford had gone close to breaking the deadlock just four minutes earlier, as Freebooters tried to make some early pressure count. Awarded a free on the edge of the D John Hayes, rather than go for goal, played a quick ball down the right flank to Damien Raggett, who fired in a cross which beat the static Stoney defence. Clifford got his head to it, but couldn’t direct his effort inside the post, much to United’s relief.
While the sides shared possession in the early stages it seemed that the lion’s share of scoring chances fell to the Blues. They had a chance to double their lead on 16 minutes when centre-half Derek Brennan sliced the home side open with a raking diagonal ball. Aaron Broaders controlled the delivery and knocked it across the box, but Raggett couldn’t keep his shot on target.
Stoneyford finally had a chance of their own in the 19th minute, and with it almost grabbed an equaliser. James O’Leary did brilliantly, craning his neck to get on the end of Conor Coffey’s corner, but Brennan was well placed on the post to block the ball on the goal line.
Stoneyford had better luck from set-pieces, and had another pot at goal from a free they won on the half hour. John Roche stood over the ball and curled his shot round a four-man wall, but although it arrowed towards the bottom right corner Graham Doyle saw it in time to get down and make the stop.
The last real chance of the half fell to the visitors just two minutes later. Raggett almost haunted his old club when he stole in to get on the end of free-kick John Hayes floated in around the box. The ’Booters striker flicked the ball goalwards, over the head of Darren Rowe, but the netminder was relieved the see the ball bounce off his left hand post and straight back into his arms.
The sides continued to slug it out in the second half, but took their time finding a route to goal. Dessie Hayes almost managed it on the hour, when he got on the end of a John Hayes pass and let fly with a shot on the turn, but although the ball beat Rowe it clipped the post and rolled out.
Freebooters kept searching for a second goal to boost their lead, but although they created opportunities they couldn’t make them count. A Dessie Hayes flick-on sent Ger Hayes on his way down the right, but although he had the pace to get past his marker Rowe was equal to the shot.
Despite those chances Stoneyford were still well in the game. James O’Leary had a great chance for them when he seized on a loose ball and set off for goal, but although his low diagonal shot had plenty of power Graham Doyle got down smartly to clutch the ball as it zipped towards the left side of his net.
United continued to push for a way back into the game right up to the closing stages. John O’Shea went close – really close – when he met sub Shane Murphy’s 76th minute corner on the half-volley. O’Shea sent a bouncing shot goalwards, but he couldn’t keep his effort on target.
Close as that was, it wasn’t a patch on Conor Coffey’s chance in the dying seconds of injury-time. James O’Leary created panic when he fired in a cross which caught the visitors cold. Coffey was well-placed at the back post and met the ball with a sweet volley – but it finished just outside the post, which was agony for the hosts.
Stoneyford United: Darren Rowe, Tommy O’Leary, C.J. Delaney, Gary Ryan, Anthony Holland (Jim Rice, 86 mins), Sean Gibbons (Shane Murphy, 68 mins), Conor Coffey, John O’Shea, Michael McDonald, John Roche (Gerry Rowe, 68 mins), James O’Leary.
Freebooters A: Graham Doyle, Ger Hayes (Willo Flood, 83 mins), James Kelly, Michael Falsey, Derek Brennan, Eamon Lyster, John Hayes, Eddie Clifford, Dessie Hayes, Damien Raggett, Aaron Broaders.
Referee: Packie Geoghegan.