*Photograph: Joe Buckley

STEVEN MCGANN’s winner in a penalty shootout crowned Avenue Utd Clare Cup champions and in the process saw the club win the double for the second time in three seasons.

Avenue Utd 0
Newmarket Celtic 0
(Avenue Utd win 4-3 on penalties)
Venue: Frank Healy Park, Doora

Warm temperatures and glorious sunshine which are typically associated with Clare Cup finals was nowhere to be found for the 2024 decider which from early-on was showing signs that extra time and penalties would determine the outcome.

With a cagey atmosphere it resulted in a poor overall contest and with the almost constant downpour it was certainly a game to forget. The nature of the tie suggested that a simple mistake would have made the difference, fortunately for both sets of player it didn’t come to that.

Equally, it is a plus that referee Pa Gleeson and his officials had firm control of proceedings and no big decision influenced the outcome.

Winning on penalties is rare for Avenue Utd and the early momentum was with Celtic in the shootout. They were leading 3-2 on the shootout having converted their first three from Ronan McCormack, Tadhg Noonan and Eoin Hayes but then Nathan Boaventura hit the crossbar and Harvey Cullinan saw his shot go over the bar.

This allowed Avenue who converted their first attempt from Mossy Hehir but had Ronan Kerin’s shot saved by Shane Cusack, a chance to get back on terms. When it came to Philip Talty, Dylan Casey and Steven McGann they made no mistake which saw David Russell’s side win the Clare Cup for the third year in a row.

Cullinan’s return was a huge lift to Celtic, his involvement helped Newmarket to maintain a clean sheet in normal and extra time while Avenue were forced to line out with their best player in the last two seasons, Elias Kunz who remains sidelined with an ankle injury since February.

Chances were few and far between in normal time, Gearoid O’Brien had a sniff of a chance on four minutes and a minute later Darragh Leahy was the first player to pick up a yellow card.

Shane Cusack was on alert to pounce from his line and catch an Avenue cross on seventeen minutes, this was the first time the league champions really threatened.

His counterpart Luke Woodrow made the first save of the evening on twenty minutes when denying Gearoid O’Brien.

Midfielder Eoghan Thynne came closest to breaking the deadlock in the opening half but his shot hit the crossbar and bounced over on the twenty fourth minute.

An error from left-back Billy McNamara allowed Steven McGann to come close but he just missed the target, a minute later. McGann had another attempt just after the half hour mark when captain Ronan Kerin did very well to execute a cross.

There was little surprise among the supporters, many of whom were developing pains in their arms for holding up umbrellas, when the half-time whistle sounded and the sides were level.

Less than thirty seconds into the restart, Luke Woodrow was almost caught for a blunder but Newmarket failed to pounce and Avenue managed to divert the danger. They began to get a grip on proceedings with Ronan Kerin coming very close to opening the scoring on fifty minutes after McGann delivered the cross.

Eoin Hayes had a free for Newmarket on fifty seven minutes which narrowly went over and then the opposing captain Kerin was next to come close.

Jack Kelly as he has done on countless occasions before, stepped up with a vital tackle to stop Jamie Roche who had cut in from the left wing and was bearing down on goal. In the process, Kelly injured his ankle and his involvement came to an end, the experienced Kevin Harnett entering the fray as a result.

At this stage Avenue were on top, Mark Roche was causing problems for left-back Billy McNamara but the Roslevan based club didn’t make this count by virtue of getting a goal.

Instead Celtic came within inches of a goal. Darragh Leahy was through, having won possession and bounding forward with pace, he was about to bring the ball around Luke Woodrow but the netminder got the most important of touches to the ball to delay his momentum just enough. Further chances for both captains followed but the almost certain extra time followed, fortunately the rain had subsided at this juncture.

Both sides understandably were beginning to bring in fresh legs, Tadhg Noonan and Nathan Boaventura had been introduced during the final twenty minutes for Newmarket with Mossy Hehir and Philip Talty adding renewed energy to the Avenue attack.

For the opening period of extra time, Conor Hehir came very close to scoring but Shane Cusack made a great save in an awkward position while a free from Dylan Casey was deflected out for a corner. At the other end, Darragh Leahy managed to connect with a volley but it just went too central which allowed Woodrow to comfortably make the save.

Avenue were the ones appealing for a penalty on the one hundredth and sixth minute when Ronan Kerin and Harvey Cullinan were battling for the ball but the officials appeared to make the correct call when not pointing to the spot.

There was plenty of penalties yet to decide the outcome and Avenue for the first time in a Clare Cup final prevailed in a shootout. It is the second time they have won three Clare Cup titles in succession, the last occurrence was in 1988, they won back to back titles against the Bridge Celtic but defeated Newmarket Celtic in the 1986 decider.

CDSL Chairman Jason Ryan presented the Ennis Carpets Clare Cup to Ronan Kerin following the game while Luke Woodrow was awarded the man of the match.

Hesitancy was evident within Newmarket’s game, on too many occasions they had players that second guessed themselves for fifty fifty balls. They worked the ball better when Nathan Boaventura was introduced but they had too many players that were missing in action on this occasion, they are most dangerous when playing ball and they didn’t do enough of this in the Cup final. They had admirable displays from Shane Cusack and Eoin Hayes while Colin Smyth and Harvey Cullinan were solid in the spine of their defence.

Paddy Purcell and his management team will need to utilise the off-season to reenergise the squad and make quality signings, something they didn’t do at the onset of this campaign, if they are to be competing in the business end of the big competitions.

Equally Avenue Utd will be well aware this wasn’t a classic and they were overly cautious in the opening half. When they began to push forward, through Mark Roche particularly on the right wing they caused problems, this helped to accelerate their attacks and pose more questions of their opponents. Similarly, they were defensively sound which resulted in the clean sheet. Standout performers included Mark Roche, Conor Mullen, Cullen McCabe and Nnabuike Nneji.

Having failed to win a trophy from 2013 to 2022, Avenue Utd’s junior side are making up for that with a third Clare Cup in a row and a second double in three seasons. They have been the best team in the county this season. Their challenge will be retaining their top players for another tilt and trying to go further in Munster and beyond.

Regrettably there was an unsavoury scene following the game with fisticuffs involving Darragh Leahy, Jamie Roche and Mikey Dinan, this despite the best efforts of Purcell to prevent such a scenario. Fortunately it didn’t descend into anything more but such occurrences need to be completely stamped out.

Avenue Utd: Luke Woodrow; Cullen McCabe, Conor Mullen, Dylan Casey, Conor Hehir; Nnabuike Nneji, Eoghan Thynne, Mark Roche, Jamie Roche, Steven McGann, Ronan Kerin.

Subs: Mossy Hehir for J Roche (85), Philip Talty for M Roche (FT).

Newmarket Celtic: Shane Cusack; Davy Lennon, Colin Smyth, Harvey Cullinan, Billy McNamara; Jack Kelly, Conor McDaid; Aaron Rudd, Gearoid O’Brien, Eoin Hayes, Darragh Leahy.

Subs: Kevin Harnett for Kelly (64) (inj), Tadhg Noonan for Rudd (70), Nathan Boaventura for O’Brien (80), David O’Grady for Lennon (98), Ronan McCormack for McDaid (100).

Referee: Pa Gleeson

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Subscribe for just €3 per month

If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

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