Promotion hopes go down to the wire

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THE Hoops kept up the pressure on the leaders with a fine 4-1 victory over third placed Armagh City on Saturday at Knockramer Park following on from the midweek comeback against Banbridge Town when two second half Aaron Haire goals gave them a draw. Celtic have now taken 22 points out of a possible 24.

Celtic were without Declan McVeigh (suspended) Shannon Drainey and Ryan Lawless from the Banbridge game but welcomed back Ciaran McEvoy to partner Paul Donegan in the heart of defence while longer term absentee Stephen Boyd assumed duties at right back with Brendan Mackin starting in midfield.

The home side started brightly and took the lead in the sixth minute after a penalty was awarded despite some Armagh players protesting the foul was committed outside the box, but Haire kept his composure to slot the ball home to ease any nerves in the side. Celtic kept up the pressure and showed no ill effects from the recent punishing schedule of games and they scored a second goal on 21 minutes when O’Hare netted with a free kick with the City side visibly shaken by this positive start.

Armagh tried to get more into the game but Celtic had a stranglehold on the game which they weren’t prepared to yield and despite starting up several attacks the visitors found the Hoops defence in no mood to concede any territory as they were aware anything less than a win would finish the promotion challenge. Celtic more or less finished the match as a contest when O’Hare set Mackin up to score right on the half time whistle to put them 3-0 up.

Armagh started the second period in a more determined fashion but a fine interception down the right by Boyd quelled the trouble and Haire and Daniel Ryan were keeping them stretched aided by Niall Lavery and Mackin who covered loads of ground. On 55 minutes Boyd came off for Michael Toland with Conor McAnallen moving to right back and Toland immediately made a break but was out muscled by a defender as he tried to get into the box. Armagh then broke upfield and with the Hoops defence outpaced Ciaran Fox rushed from his goal to clear the danger. At this stage Celtic were looking sluggish as their recent exertions started to tell as the visitors started to dominate midfield with the introduction of substitute Eamon Kelly. Daniel Ryan limped off as he had received a knock earlier in the half and looks doubtful for the last two games and was replaced by Shane McCabe who went to midfield with young Toland going up front to partner Haire.

Some slack defending let Armagh in for a goal on 71 minutes when Kelly fastened unto a loose ball out of defence and scored past the despairing Fox from just inside the box and suddenly their tales were up as they sensed the Hoops were wilting, but back came the Hoops with first Haire cannoning a shot off a defender and from the corner Mackin rose well above everyone to head just over. Toland then broke down the left side and cut in to send a shot from the outside of his right foot towards goal but the City keeper somehow got a fingertip to it and clutched the ball to stop it going into the net.

Armagh then broke down the Hoops defensive right side and a sizzling shot was fired in and looked goalbound but Fox was alert to the danger and turned it round for a corner. The game was finally sealed on 85 minutes when Haire received the ball out on the right and he took on three defenders as he cut into the penalty area and was crudely taken down with the referee showing no hesitation in pointing to the spot. After some treatment Haire dusted himself down and proceeded to score the spot kick confidently sending the keeper the wrong way putting three goals between the sides once more. Just on the whistle City were awarded a free kick which was struck low but Fox once more saved.

This was the Hoops first league win over Armagh since they dropped down to Championship 2 and also the first time they have scored more than one goal against them in a game as previous matches between the sides have always been low scoring affairs. The win keeps the Hoops in the promotion hunt but Celtic require to win the final two games with Ballyclare losing their final match to achieve promotion, a tall order but not impossible, so just like last season it is going down to the wire.

After a home game against Wakehurst on Tuesday Celtic finish off the league campaign away to Killymoon Rangers on Saturday.