Banbridge Academy came from a goal down to defeat Ballyclare High 2-1 and lift the Belfast Telegraph Ulster Senior Cup for only the second time in their history after a thrilling final at Lisnagarvey on Wednesday.
The Academy, who were competing in their fourth successive decider after winning the famous trophy in 2017, deserved their narrow victory but Ballyclare made them fight all the way.
Indeed, with better finishing from a barrage of late penalty corners, they could well have forced the game into a penalty shootout.
All three goals came from set-pieces and the Academy produced a much improved display after labouring to a 1-0 win over Strathearn in the semi-finals three weeks earlier. Triumphant coach Neil Madeley and team captain Nadia Benallal were naturally delighted at the outcome.
“I think this win was even sweeter than the one in 2017 because we had to work a lot harder for it and we probably had a slightly stronger squad back then,” said Madeley.
“We knew we had a lot of work to do after under performing in the semi and it paid off, so well done to the girls.”
Nadia was thrilled at her team’s achievement after being one of a handful of survivors from the class of ’17.
“Ballyclare made it really hard for us and it was never comfortable with only having that one-goal lead going into the last few minutes,” she said.
“We put a lot of hard work into our preparation since the semi-final because we knew we had to get better and fortunately we did just that. We didn’t make the best of starts with conceding an early goal but the girls fought back superbly and we are delighted to have won the cup again.”
“It doesn’t stop here though because we are back in the all Ireland tournament now, so we’ll enjoy tonight and then get back to work again.”
Ballyclare assistant coach Zoe Wilson paid tribute to Banbridge and to her own team and insisted that they have a good chance of putting things right in 12 months time.
“We knew going into the game that Banbridge were a very strong team and they proved that so well done to them,” said the Ireland World Cup silver medallist.
“But I was very proud of how our girls played and, with 12 players back next year, I am sure we will be capable of giving it a real go again.”
Ballyclare made a dream start when, after only three minutes, Rebecca Walker fired a penalty corner high into the net off a deflection after Rebecca McCullough had switched the ball back to her team mate.
After that setback, Bann laid siege to the Ballyclare goal and keeper Laura Chestnutt made a string of superb saves, denying Katie McDonald (twice) and Ellen Reid from set-pieces.
But the Academy pressure paid off when, in the 23rd minute, McDonald fired in a superb low shot into the net from her team’s fifth set-piece. McDonald then shot wide and Benallal over as Bann launched attack after attack before Reid took a McCullough pile-driver off the line at the other end in the 29th minute.
The ball had struck her foot though so it was a penalty stroke but Rebecca’s effort from the spot was comfortably saved.
Chestnutt then made a tremendous double stop from Molly Mathers eight minutes after the break but she was beaten in the 43rd minute when Reid blasted in the winner from a penalty corner.
Ballyclare finished the stronger as they went in search of an equaliser, forcing three late corners without reward, although Walker went agonisingly close to getting her second goal of the game when she fired inches past the post with six minutes left.
But the Academy held on and the cup was on its way back to Banbridge after a two year gap after one of the most exciting finals in years.
Banbridge Academy: Rebecca Spence; Alex Gardiner, Holly Hannah, Nadia Benallal, Katie McDonald, Sophie Mount, Jodie Simmons, Hanna Buchanan, Gemma Hassan, Ellen Reid, Molly Mathers, Zoe Hylands, Hannah Jordan, Sara Jayne Corry, Maisy Corry, Caitlyn Lyness.
Ballyclare High: Laura Chestnutt; Rachel Hill, Katie Stewart, Rebecca Walker, Kathryn Quinn, Molly Dougan, Chloe McNeilly, Megan Cochrane, Hannah Petire, Hannah Smyth, Rebecca McCullough, Niamh Hogan, Leah Baird, Issy McGrugan, Eve Cole, Leah Wilson, Nell Campbell, Amy McGookin.
Umpires: Linda Johnston, Gail Taylor.