*David O’Grady leads the post-match celebrations. Photograph: Joe Buckley

NEWMARKET CELTIC have qualified for their first ever FAI Junior Cup final after emerging victorious against three time finalists Ballynanty Rovers.

Newmarket Celtic 2
Ballynanty Rovers 1
Venue: Frank Healy Park, Doora

Crowds streamed into the county grounds as early as an hour before kick-off for one of the most anticipated games to take place at Frank Healy Park since it was renamed in honour of the Kilmaley native in 2017.

For the first time in their fifty five year history, the Newmarket-on-Fergus club will have the distinction of lining out in the most prestigious day in the junior soccer calendar in the country.

Their semi-final victory was certainly deserved as they bossed possession for the most part, a lacklustre closure to the opening half saw Ballynanty claw back on level terms.

How they’ve regrouped since the disappointment of losing both Premier Division and Clare Cup titles last May has been remarkable with the addition of new signings and native players returning from Sheffield and Limerick to mention but two locations.

Of those signings, Jack Kelly gave his best performance in the red of Newmarket Celtic, the Shannon native got his head to almost anything that moved in the sky around the middle of the park and on countless occasions produced timely tackles to regain possession for his side.

In their early dominance, Aaron Rudd was presented with a salivating opportunity to take the lead on five minutes but he failed to connect with a cross from Eoin Hayes. Their next attack gave another opening, Jack Kelly won back possession in his half, Darragh Leahy played Hayes through but his initial shot was saved and the rebound from Dean Hegarty narrowly missed the target.

Darragh Leahy’s workrate and chasing of opposing defenders and goalkeepers has been a tool in their arsenal this season and his efforts won the first corner of the game on thirteen minutes, the delivery from David McCarthy found the head of Kelly but his attempt just trickled wide.

On opportunity four, Newmarket broke the deadlock. Once again, Leahy and Hayes combined, the former finding the latter with possession and an accurate cross from Hayes was gladly and calmly dispatched to the back of the net by winger Dean Hegarty.

Shane Cusack was called upon for the first time as he punched away a free by James Fitzgerald on seventeen minutes.

Celtic came very close to doubling their advantage when substitute Gearoid O’Brien just hit wide, David McCarty had played him an excellent cross-field ball but O’Brien’s touch and pace allowed him to get away but his shot didn’t rattle the net.

From here, Ballynanty inhaled and began to announce themselves. They produced the next six chances in the game, Gbadebo Habiden clearly showing his ability and he was unfortunate to be denied by the crossbar on twenty three minutes.

This sustained pressure from the Limerick side was bound to reap a reward and it did before half time. A long delivery from goalkeeper Stephen McNamara bounced favourably towards Habiden, he powered past the Celtic defence, gave the pass to Adrian Power and the left winger picked off a fine effort to level matters with forty one minutes on the clock.

Celtic again began to find their rhythm on the restart and while they created chances, none of them really pressured their Balla counterparts and instead was more a case of a player in red taking the wrong option or slightly misplacing their distribution of the ball.

Cusack was never called upon to make any last-ditch saves in the second half, a sign if any as to which team were dictating the play. Worries began to seep in that it may take extra time to find a winner as Newmarket’s opportunities were not bringing the desired outcome but they continued to persist.

This perseverance paid off, aided by a quick restart as Gearoid O’Brien took a throw from the right wing, found captain Eoin Hayes, the initial shot from the stiker was saved but he did very well to regain the ball immediately where he controlled it and then fired the rebound to the roof of the net to send the crowd wild with eighty minutes on the clock. It was fitting that Hayes would be the hero, given the contribution of his entire family to the club over many years and his standing as a hero was evident as he signed autographs on the pitch in the aftermath.

Holding off any comeback was now key and that is exactly what Paddy Purcell’s charges did to see out the game, they smartly and swiftly moved the ball out of the danger zone when Balla began to attack while they ran with the ball out wide to slow down the clock and at the sounding of the final bell, few arguments could deny that Newmarket Celtic were in the FAI Junior Cup final on merit.

Semi-finals can be funny affairs and the desirable is not attained they can leave regrets that linger on for years. There’ll be no regrets among the Newmarket Celtic faithful as they struck to the task at hand to seal their place in a final, a stage and arena they have been vying to reach for decades.

Kelly excelled in the middle of the park while captain Eoin Hayes who has stepped up when the need is greatest on so many occasions for his club, did so again by netting the all-important goal. Harvey Cullinan showcased his class yet again with a fine performance while Ethan Fitzgerald coped well with the amount of pressure he was dealing with in the heart of the defence. Leahy’s workrate as outlined has been a massive coup but each player will pleased with their own showing.

Injuries to Aaron Rudd and David McCarthy didn’t derail their cause, instead they made sure the next foot forward was stronger than the last and now the greatest prize of them all is within their grasp.

For Dave Dunphy’s side, Adrian Power and Gbadebo Habiden were their best on a day when their back four struggled to deal with Newmarket when they were in their groove.

Newmarket Celtic: Shane Cusack; David O’Grady; Ethan Fitzgerald, Harvey Cullinan; Conor McDaid; Jack Kelly; Aaron Rudd, David McCarthy, Dean Hegarty: Eoin Hayes, Darragh Leahy.

Subs: Gearoid O’Brien for Rudd (21) (inj), Eunan Doherty for McCarthy (73) (inj), Stephen Kelly for Hegarty (81), Tadhg Noonan for Leahy (81),

Ballynanty Rovers: Stephen McNamara; Darragh Hughes, Josh Adam, Dermot Fitzgerald, Adam Costelloe; Thomas Byrnes, Aidan Hurley; James Fitzgerald, Cian Fitzgerald, Adrian Power; Gbadebo Habiden.

Subs: Liam Byrnes for Costelloe (20) (inj), David Donnan for Byrnes (64), Cian Power for C Fitzgerald (70), Conor Keane for Hurley (85)

Referee: Adrian Quirke.
Asst Referee: Anthony Morrison
Linesman: Thomas Sheedy

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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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