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Farcical PK Shoot-out, Last Gasp Blues Go Through To Shield Final

Confusion reigned after Chris Curran’s penalty chalked off

Jimmy Callagher, Jordan Stewart and Chris Shields celebrate penalty shoot-out success last night at Solitude.

If it wasn’t the weirdest penalty shoot-out I’d ever seen, it certainly was the most confusing, leaving many departing Solitude, still trying to piece together what had just transpired.

Routinely Ryan Curran, also a scorer from the spot during the game, and Chris Shields scored the first two kicks for their respective sides.

Up stepped Curran’s namesake Chris, who also despatched into the net. 2-1 Cliftonville, or so we thought. Significantly there was immediate reaction from several Linfield players positioned on the half-way line. Something appeared to be not quite right, something for the most part undetectable from the Bowling Green End of the stadium.

For a moment it looked as though referee Evan Boyce was ordering a retake. There was a delay and Linfield fans began the inevitable, “You don’t know what you’re doing,” chant.

Then up stepped Jordan Stewart for Linfield. Stewart blazed over the bar. The Bowling Green End, and no doubt several others in the stadium, thought it was 2-1 Cliftonville at that point.

When Cliftonville’s Chris Gallagher stepped up and struck a post before Marty Donnelly converted for Linfield it looked all the world like 2-2 after three rounds of penalties.

Linfield’s 19-year-old goalkeeper David Walsh then produced the best save of the shoot-out from Levi Ives, but Luke McNicholas responded denying Ahmed Salam. Still 2-2 we thought.

Wrong! The referee had disallowed that second (apparently successful) kick by Chris Curran, as the Cliftonville player had touched the ball with his standing foot, before striking the ball into the net. Two touches. It was actually 2-1 to Linfield.

Salam knew he was stepping up to win the semi-final for Linfield. As we learned afterwards he’d cleared that up with the ref before taking his kick. On-pitch communication may have been spot-on, but it wasn’t clear to the crowd. So when Paul O’Neill’s subsequent tame effort for Cliftonville was saved, those in the stands expecting Linfield to step up and take their fifth penalty to win the game, were non-plussed when the players in blue and white ran towards their goalkeeper in celebration.

Conversations amongst fans leaving the ground centred on trying to work out how the shoot-out was won and lost. I suppose most eventually then realized Cliftonville’s second kick had been disallowed.

All very strange, but the officials got it right in the end, even if things were far from obvious.
It made a long night interesting (and confusing), more than what could be said of the game itself. One of the evening’s absolute highlights as temperatures dropped, was the tannoy announcement at the conclusion of 90 minutes saying the match would go straight to penalties. No extra-time to endure!

Both teams had lacked urgency throughout. Linfield exercised squad rotation giving opportunities to several young fringe players, but the full-strength Reds couldn’t quite get the job done.

Leading 1-0 they came within a whisker of claiming a final spot and maintaining their record of winning every game at Solitude this season, but lack-lustre Linfield awoke from their slumber in the last five minutes, having a Manzinga header disallowed and then scoring with their first shot on target. By then the game was 93 minutes old, Kyle McClean saving the Blues from close range during a goalmouth scramble.

In the final, Linfield will meet holders Larne, who defeated neighbours Ballyclare Comrades 8-0, in the other semi-final, with a date to be determined early in the new year.