Ardee Celtic will play their 2017/18 football in the NEFL Division 1 after the Ardee men suffered a narrow 1-0 defeat at the hands of Boyne Harps in the promotion relegation playoff at United Park on Thursday.
In the end, Stephen Carter’s 24th minute header proved the difference between the sides – a goal that keeps the 2015 league champions in the top flight and condemns the Deesiders to another season in the second tier. After a stellar season in which they for a long time looked good bets to gain promotion, a failure to win any of their last four games left them a beaten docket.
The flag was raised late on when James McMullen forced goalkeeper Jay Lowney into a brilliant save as Ardee pressed for the goal that would take the game into extra time.
The playoffs were unfamiliar territory for both sides. Harps were Premier Division champions as recently as 2015 while Ardee Celtic’s promotion push in 2016/17 has proved a welcome change from years of mid-table lingering, occasionally flirting with matters towards the bottom of the table.
The men from Meadowview could have borne a familiar look to supporters of Ardee Celtic but with former Celtic players Jonathan Deegan (suspended) and Bernard Osborne (holiday) missing, William Woods was the only ex-Celtic man involved, taking his place on the bench.
Referee Brian Murphy booked Boyne’s Danny Coyle for a challenge on Niall Conlon inside a minute of the start and Harps could have had an early goal too. Just six minutes in, Ryan Connor unleashed a dipping volley from 35 yards out that Declan Butler had to tip onto the top of the bar. Remarkably, neither referee or assistants spotted the save and no corner was awarded.
Danny Coyle had a volleyed effort of his own soon after as Harps dominated early proceedings. Ardee Celtic looked nervy in possession at times and struggled to build any play, with the composed Paul Matondo an exception in midfield.
Harps hit the front when James Traynor got forward from full back and sent in a deep cross to the back post where Carter was free to head back across Butler and in.
After an exceptional campaign in which automatic promotion proved tantalisingly beyond their reach, two draws and a defeat in their final three games saw the regular season of such promise end with a whimper. A draw wouldn’t be worth anything at the home of Drogheda United – with promotion and relegation matters to be settled on the night, extra time and penalties would be called upon were the teams deadlocked after 90 minutes.
The best Celtic could muster in the opening half was when Lorcan Myles’ corner was played short to Robbie Reynolds. His right foot cross just evaded the incoming Fintan Clarke. Clarke himself was guilty of a few nervy moments at the back but he made some crucial interventions too. No more so than when Connor left McNeice grounded and advanced before a fine challenge.
Boom or bust, do-or-die – Ardee Celtic had 45 minutes to rescue their season. At half time, on came Gareth Kane and James McMullen as Celtic went with two strikers. McMullen would prove a nuisance and Kane a constant threat.
Despite an improvement from the visitors after the restart, Boyne had the two most clear cut chances. Ian Devine met Carter’s right wing cross with a header which looked to be looping over Butler. The stopper got a strong hand to it to again divert the ball onto the bar.
Substitute James Guilfoyle then saw a close range shot blocked by Clarke and then curled over the bar. Devine hit the side netting when he broke through.
The half time reshuffle saw Mikey Nulty join Matondo and Paul Carrie in midfield and his energy helped Celtic wrest control as the game wore on, with Harps fading. With 15 minutes left to play, a Niall Conlon corner was sent in. Clarke’s header fell to Matondo who’s attempted overhead was blocked.
As the Font came again, Matondo chipped a ball in and Clarke helped it on. Lowney just beat McMullen to the ball. Tristan Knowles’ tame shot was cleared as the clock ticked down and then Lowney superbly denied McMullen in injury time but the flag was up regardless. Gareth Kane’s last gasp volley was straight at the goalkeeper.
In a season where Celtic were the lowest scorers in the Division 1 top five, a tally of one goal in their last four games cost them dear. Harps pulled the strings for the most part in the season decider. Celtic’s season ends on a bum note.
ARDEE CELTIC: Declan Butler, Kenneth Thornton (Stuart Osbourne, 84), Fintan Clarke, Robbie McNeice, Robbie Reynolds, Paul Carrie, Paul Matondo, Eddie Burke (Gareth Kane, 46), Mikey Nulty, Lorcan Myles (James McMullen, 46), Niall Conlon (Tristan Knowles, 76).
Substitites: Conor Osbourne.
BOYNE HARPS: Jay Lowney, Conor Healy, James Traynor (Stephen Jordan, 87), Kevin Walsh, Paddy O’Boyle, Danny Coyle, Stephen Carter, Darren McCann (William Woods, 67), Ian Devine (Leon Campbell, 89) , Ryan Connor, Gary Bedford (James Guilfoyle, 46).