Cliftonville ..... (0)(2)4 ..... Coleraine (0)(2)2
Paddy McLaughlin’s Cliftonville won their sixth Irish League Cup and their first since 2016, after overcoming a two-goal deficit against Coleraine at the National Stadium.
It was a final that, eventually, had everything; bubbling atmosphere, a record crowd, two players stretchered off, as many red cards and seven goals, including a last minute equalizer.
All of the action was crammed into a hectic last 32 minutes plus 30 minutes of extra time. The first two-thirds of regulation time you can forget about. Nothing much happened as the two sides cancelled each other out.
Coleraine’s Glackin started brightly before Cliftonville shut off his supply and the Reds, however comfortable they looked in retaining possession, didn’t exactly threaten Gareth Deane’s goal.
One of the more noteworthy incidents of the half was an almost 4-minute stoppage due to an emergency situation with a Cliftonville fan in the crowd.
But the match did explode to life after Cliftonville captain for the day, Levi Ives left a pass short in the Coleraine half on 58 minutes. Lyndon Kane nipped in, carried the ball forward and as composed as you like, played a delightful pass to Shevlin moving on the outside of the last Cliftonville defender. The striker slid the ball past the advancing McNicholas. Deadlock finally broken. Game on! The 15/8 outsiders were in front.
The Reds were visibly rocked, and the 4,000 travelling Bannsiders fans didn’t have long to wait before they were in raptures a second time. Just five minutes in fact. Their defence failed to clear a corner and Stephen Lowry took one touch, turned and hammered an unstoppable volley from 14 yards past McNicholas for 2-0.
Cliftonville’s treble dream was in tatters.
But that was without reckoning on the Reds’ character and collective spirit, both plentiful commodities ingrained in the squad under McLaughlin’s construction.
Joe Gormley had entered the fray for Daniel Kearns between the Coleraine goals and the club’s record goalscorer wasn’t long influencing proceedings. He was joined in the forward line by another replacement, young Paul O’Neill, himself with previous when it comes to cup finals staged at the National Stadium.
The changes helped tilt the balance back towards the Belfast side and the excellent Ryan Curran lifted a pinpoint cross onto Gormley’s head on 74 minutes, the ace marksman diverting the ball well beyond Deane to half the arrears.
The Reds were back. Coleraine boss Oran Kearney expressed disappointment at how Cliftonville regained their foothold. Feeling his side, in going two ahead, had executed the game-plan to perfection, Kearney was content to see Cliftonville forsake some of their technical game, instead going more direct. “I expected a reaction but they were throwing balls into the box which is what I wanted them to do, as I felt we’d just eat those up. So to concede the first the way we did was disappointing.”
The Bannsiders’ cause was not helped by Glackin’s stretchering off after damaging an ankle two minutes after Gormley’s strike, nor when the same mode of transport was used to remove Shevlin after he’d been out cold after colliding with Reds’ ‘keeper McNicholas with three minutes left on the clock.
Glackin’s replacement was James McLaughlin, the significance of which wouldn’t take long to manifest. But not before Paul O’Neill had his say. The former Glentoran player has been frustrated by limited game time this season, but this would be an afternoon when he made the most of any opportunity presented.
As the game entered its final minute O’Neill’s cross caused chaos in the Coleraine box, the ball falling to Ryan Curran whose goal-bound strike, blocked, went behind for a corner. More frenetic defending by Coleraine couldn’t prevent Addis heading the ball back into the danger zone, Gormley nodding goal-wards against the bar and there was O’Neill, virtually on the goal-line, to force it over the line.
It wasn’t unlike Cliftonville’s previous final appearance at the National Stadium when Thomas Maguire threw them a late lifeline in the Co Antrim Shield decider in 2019. Just like that evening the board went up signalling seven minutes of added time.
The equalizer had drained the life away from Coleraine, momentum firmly swinging the direction of Cliftonville. Tails up and sniffing blood, they went for the jugular but the Bannsiders found the energy and resolve to earn another 30 minutes.
That’s when James McLaughlin made his mark with a combination more suited to the King’s Hall, that traditional old venue for big-time boxing just up the road.
A melee had ensued after McDonagh may have flicked out after tumbling to the turf. It was a case of handbags but not by McLaughlin, who followed up an initial strike to Chris Curran’s face with a couple more. Curran hit the deck, the decision for the officials as obvious and clear-cut as you’ll ever see. Red card!
Coleraine’s discipline seeped further when Winky Murphy became verbally involved on the touchline, Andrew Davey brandishing another red card to the Bannsiders’ assistant coach.
From nothing doing throughout a drab first hour to frequent flurries of activity with no signs of subsidence.
If Coleraine looked cooked before, it was only a case now of whether they could repel the rampant Reds and force a penalty shoot-out.
The answer however was an emphatic, “No!” First, O’Neill set up Chris Curran who should’ve scored but wanted an extra touch, then O’Neill himself brought a save from Deane before, with a minute to play in the first period of extra time, Curran returned the compliment to O’Neill and he lashed home the go-ahead goal.
On the restart, Kearney had to go for it, sacrificing full-back Traynor and introducing Curtis Allen up front, but within three minutes the gamble had failed and it was game over!
O’Neill, what an impact he’d made, robbed O’Donnell and presented to Ryan Curran. The Cliftonville #9 threaded his pass across the box, repeating his first-goal set-up to Gormley, who gleefully tapped into the net wheeling away in delight towards the red hordes in the North Stand.
Gormley thought he’d completed a hat-trick moments later sending a powerful header beyond Deane, but the lineman’s flag cut celebrations short.
There was still time for late substitute Allen to reduce the deficit for Coleraine, the striker’s well-struck finish beating McNicholas, who probably should have done better.
A breathless end to a pulsating encounter which for long enough at one stage, had damp squib written all over it.
Paddy McLaughlin probably won’t hear tell of it, but Cliftonville, the only club left in local football that can achieve the feat, has just ticked off the first-leg of an improbable treble.
Cliftonville: McNicholas - Lowe, Addis, Turner, Ives (c) - Hale (C Curran, 53), Doherty (O’Neill, 70), Gallagher, Kearns (Gormley, 61) - McDonagh (Coates, 118), R. Curran
Bench (not used): McKenna, McDermott, Donnelly
Coleraine: Deane - Kane, Brown, O’Donnell, Traynor (Allen, 116) - McKendry (Wilson, 73), Lowry, Carson, Glackin (McLaughlin, 78) - Kelly, Shevlin (Bradley, 88)
Bench (not used): Gallagher, Mullan, Jarvis
Referee: Andrew Davey (Bangor)