City break losing cycle with Cup win under new boss Gray
“We knew it would be far from perfect and that was evident on the pitch but we controlled the game for large patches,” a relieved Gray told the Newry Reporter after the game.
The former Warrenpoint Town manager, who took over from Gary Boyle, was well aware of the challenging task at hand given Newry’s dire season thus far, and admitted last week that instilling some confidence in his demoralised players was a priority.
An Irish Cup game was a welcome first test for Gray, with stopping the rot in the league the priority, starting next Saturday at home to Cliftonville. For Saturday’s game, on paper at least, City should have been heavy favourites against the Mallards, but in these turbulent times, only performances on the pitch would tell.
It all went as planned initially. Newry led 2-0 after 19 minutes with goals from O’Connor and Adam Salley. The Mallards battled back however with a goal before the break from Simon Warrington and the equaliser from Alex Holder early in the second half.
The fear was palpable at that stage, that another defeat was a strong possibility and confidence levels did sap for the hosts. They sat deeper and Ballinamallard were the better side, but saying that, the Newry defence held firm and on 73 minutes, against the run of play O’Connor found the winning goal.
“It’s clear and obvious for me as the new manager that we have much work to do, both in terms of the fitness levels and collectively as a group, but today we’re pleased with the character we’ve seen and the appetite from the players to want to push on and win the game.”
Newry got off to a confident start, with the first run by Salley down the left wing halted by Ben McCann who caught up with him and put the ball out for a corner. Paul McGovern, who had a terrific game, picked up the delivery, but got tangled up in traffic and the chance was lost.
In the fourth minute however, O’Connor was on hand at the post to pick up a ball lobbed into the box and with the nervous Mallards keeper, James Ray approaching, dinked past him into the net.
Ryan McGivern was called into action for a couple of clearances at the other end, but on 19 minutes, Salley found himself one-on-one with Ray who came out to meet him and Salley made no mistake in picking his spot and firing home.
It looked like Newry were in complete control of this game and the fans were loving it, but minutes before half-time Ballinamallard went on the break and Warrington shot for goal. There was a delayed reaction from the crowd who thought the ball was going wide, but it didn’t and the scoreline read 2-1 at the half-time whistle.
Things began to look much more ominous for Newry four minutes into the second half when a couple of Ballinamallard throw-ins weren’t dealt with by the defence and with the ball back in the box, it passed through Aaron Arkinson and Warrington before Alex Holder finished to the net. With that, the confidence seemed to suck right out of Gray’s men, and the opposite happened for the Mallards, but, against the run of play on 73 minutes, a lovely flick back to Paul McGovern from Salley ended with O’Connor stroking home to make it 3-2 for the home side. Ben McCann came close to levelling again from a header but Newry hung on and saw the game out.
O’Connor’s winning goal and the build-up to it was good agreed Gray.
“That’s what we’ve talked about this week in training. We talked about that style of play, in terms of keeping ourselves nice and solid and tight and then being able to break when we have quality players to do so up the pitch where we finished the goal.”
And while it was far from a confident victory over second tier opposition, the manager insisted that it wasn’t as hairy as was suggested to him.
“Without being disrespectful, people will tell us it was a hairy game but I don’t see it. Stevie
[Maguire] hadn’t a save to make for 90 minutes - bar the two chances they had on goal. We had numerous opportunities or half-chances, particularly in the first half where we could have put the game to bed. We didn’t do that but I think we saw enough today to show us the areas where we need to improve on and particularly the areas that we think we were okay and try to build on that.”
Gray hopes to lead his men to their first home league win of the season, but he knows Cliftonville will be no easy task.
“Cliftonville is one of the best teams in the country at this minute in time. We know it’s a challenge for us. We have lots to work on this week and we hope that we’ll get more out of next week’s game in terms of performance levels and when we come to the head-to-head games that are most important for us we hope to be in a better position going into them.”