A SOLITARY strike by Pat Lutton against Whitehead Eagles almost certainly ended Grange Rangers’ relegation worries.
Needing four points to be absolutely sure of remaining in the Amateur League Division 2B, Paul Mcallister’s lads picked up three when they won the East Antrim derby at Foundry Lane 1-0.
The win was a fitting end for evergreen Michael Ireland who was making his final home appearance for the club, after having scored almost 300 goals during his 16 years in Rangers colours. Ireland earned his place in local folklore when he netted the golden goal at Taylor’s Avenue that brought the prestigious county Antrim FA Junior Shield to the town for the one and only time in the late ‘90s.
Rangers were on the front foot early against Eagles, and Ireland was unlucky not to open the scoring in the fourth minute when he just failed to connect with Marc Campbell’s teasing cross.
This pattern continued, and Stewart McConnell tested the keeper with an effort from 25 yards, before Ally McNair saw his free-kick end up in the side-netting. Later Ireland was in the spotlight again when he beat a defender before stinging the hands of the keeper.
The Ballyclare lads failed to capitalise on their pressure, and eventually Whitehead started to come more into the game, and only blocks by McNair and Rab Cowan, as well as two smart saves from Simon Hamilton, kept the scorecard blank at the break.
In what was turning out to be a cracking derby tie, both teams came out in the second half intent on winning the match.
Three minutes into the second period player-manager McAllister saw a headed effort from a corner go just over the bar, whilst at the other end another fine stop from Hamilton denied Eagles.
Rangers netted the vital winner in the 67th minute in a quick counter-attack; Chris McGookin broke up the play on the edge of his own box and released the ball to Lutton, who beat four opponents before unleashing an unstoppable 20-yard left-footed drive into the roof of the net. It was a goal worthy of winning any game.
Worse was to follow for the visitors when Moran received his marching orders for a second booking, and this signalled the end of Whitehead’s threat.
Rangers dominated possession in the closing stages and might have stretched their lead when Campbell and Jonny White saw efforts flash over the bar.
Grange Rangers: Hamilton; Cooper (c), McNair, Cowan, McAllister; McConnell, McGookin, Lutton; Campbell, Davey, Ireland. Subs: Higgins, White, Thompson.
Rangers complete their league programme in Ballynahinch on Saturday against Clarence Cup semi-finalists Temple Rangers, knowing that a victory could ensure a top-half finish in Division 2B in Paul McAllister’s first season in charge.