Top of The Hill Celtic 2, Oxford United Stars 0
Top of the Hill Celtic are the 2015 Pat Harkin Cup winners after goals in each half from Colin Murray and Darren Harkin sealed a comfortable 2-0 win over Oxford United stars at the Brandywell Showgrounds on Thursday night.
Colin Logue’s Celtic team were in control from the start against a young Oxford team who had their fair share of possession without ever really threatening to trouble a TOTHC defence superbly marshalled by Andy Devlin and Ryan Brown.
The Waterside, who last won the tournament in 2011, men set up with Dee McGee and Hugh Carlin acting two holding midfielders to release what was essentially a rotating four man attack with Harkin, Murray and Michael McCrudden playing behind target ma,n Stephen Parkhouse. The ploy worked brilliantly but only because McGee and Carlin were superb, breaking up numerous Oxford attacks and getting through an inordinate amount of work. McGee probably shaded the ‘Man of the Match’ honours but his midfield partner wasn’t far behind.
Oxford manager Paul Roddy had charged Brian Rainey with a similar job and he too was impressive but too often he found himself outnumbered against Celtic’s extra man.
A low key opening period suddenly burst into life with Murray’s fantastic opener on eight minutes. TOTHC worked a short corner between Harkin and Murray with the latter finding himself in space approaching the penalty area. From there, the striker cut inside one defender before curling a beautiful shot past the outstretched hands of Oxford keeper, Sean McNeil and into the top corner.
The same Harkin-Murray axis almost added a second one minute later when the former found the latter with a perfectly judged pass, Murray’s excellent first time shot forcing Oxford keeper Sean McNeil to touch the ball over bar with a smart save.
Celtic had taken a foothold in midfield thanks to McGee who was controlling the game but Oxford’s Aaron Rogan almost levelled when his fine solo run ended with him slipping the ball between the legs of Devlin and curling a shot inches wide. It was a break which highlighted the dangers posed by the fast breaking Oxford outfit and when they forced a corner from another counter-attack, Conor Loughrey really should have done better with a free header from 10 yards.
McCrudden and Harkin both saw efforts go wide as Celtic pressed for a second and they thought they had it on 34 minutes. McCrudden went to ground in the build-up with referee Martin Dunne waving away penalty appeals but as the Celtic players protested, the ball was floated to the back post from where Harkin headed powerfully back across goal and into the net only to have his celebrations cut short by the offside flag.
Devlin then saw his powerful header bounce off the top of the Oxford crossbar as TOTHC tried to force the issue but Oxford held firm with Loughrey a towering presence at the heart of their defence and relishing his battle with former Derry and Institute forward, Parkhouse, who was the focal point of the Celtic attack.
The half ended with Murray almost setting up Harkin after he sent a raking crossfield pass to the back post where Harkin met it perfectly on the volley but he couldn’t keep it down and his powerful shot drifted inches over the bar to leave only one between the at the break.
Oxford increased the pace of their game after the break and enjoyed more pressure as Top of the Hill began to pay for the amount of work they had gone through in the first 45 minutes. With a number of Celtic players tiring, it allowed Oxford to push up and force the favourites back toward their own goal.
Rogan was the first man in blue to test the water with a 20 yard free-kick which forced McGilloway to pushed the ball away for a corner from which Loughrey thought he had been pushed over but once again, Dunne waved away all penalty appeals.
Next up Lee Roddy tried his luck from outside the area and McGilloway had to be smart to gather at the second attempt with Hargan ready to pounce on any fumble by the keeper.
Celtic were able to introduce Gavin McShane and Marty Donaghy to bring a bit of energy back into their game after a spell of sustained Oxford pressure. The more Oxford pushed though, the better the TOTHC back four defended and their midfield shield protected them. And if McGee shaded the honours in the middle first half, Carlin took them after the break with some superb tackling and non-stop running during a period in which his team were on the back foot.
As the game wore on, TOTHC regained their composure with McCrudden missing a chance to score their second when he found himself on the end of Harkin lovely through ball but McNeil was off his line quickly to block.
As long as it remained only 1-0 however, Oxford were in the game and it took until the 72nd minute before Logue’s men finally sealed a deserved triumph through Harkin’s tournament clinching goal. It was fitting that the move was started by Carlin whose fierce 25 yard shot was pushed away from goal by McNeil having had an excellent game in the Oxford goal. The ball didn’t go dead though and McCrudden was alert enough to recycle possession before floating an inch perfect cross to the head of Harkin who looped his header back where it had come from to see the ball drop just inside the near post.
With that went any lingering hopes Oxford had as TOTHC controlled the final minutes without any undue stress to be crowned Pat Harkin Cup champions.
TOTHC: J. P. McGilloway, Paul Brown, Gerard Kelly, Ryan Brown, Andy Devlin, Damian McGee, Hugh Carlin, Darren Harkin, Michael McCrudden, Stephen Parkhouse, Colin Murray. (Subs) Gavin McShane for S Parkhouse, 67mins; Marty Donaghy for C Murray, 73mins; James McGinley for M McCrudden, 84mins.
Oxford United Stars: Sean McNeil, Kevin Deehan, Kevin Roddy, Conor Loughrey, Ryan Devine, Ryan Deery, Brian Rainey,Lee Roddy, Paul Simon Tracey, Aaron Rogan, Emmett Hargan. (Subs) Eamon Doherty for Paul Simon Tracey; Pearse Lyttle for A Rogan, 77mins.
Referee: Martin Dunne.