Linfield manager David Healy admitted his was gutted when teenage sensation Paul Smyth was dismissed in Saturday’s thrilling Tennent’s Irish Cup tie against Ballymena United at Windsor Park.
The 18 year old not only picked up the first red card of his short Irish League career, but it means he is now ruled out of his first final - Tuesdsay night’s County Antrim Shield decider against the same opponents.
It’s no surprise that Healy stands shoulder-to-shoulder with his prize boy, who has been a revelation since breaking into the first time in November.
“Straight away I was thinking, he’ll miss the Shield final. I’m disappointed for him,” said the former Northern Ireland striker.
“There is no way I was going to criticise him because he was one of our shining lights during the tough times over the month of November.
“He was naive. Paul was frustrated afterwards, but I told him he had nothing to worry about. He’ll have plenty of finals over the course of his career. He’s a young boy and he has played in every game since I put him into the team - he keeps coming up with the answers. Paul is down, but he’ll learn. He has the hunger and desire to become a great player. It’s a hard one from him to take, missing a cup final. But hopefully, the boys can go out and win it for him.”
Ironically, the emergence of Smyth meant that Guy Bates has spent most of his time on the substitutes’ bench of late. But when he was given the thumbs up for the 30 minutes of extra time, but big man came up with the goods.
It was a typical cup tie. Andy Waterworth shot the Blues in front just after the break, but United stunned the home supporters by plundering an equaliser through Gary Thompson in their first meaningful attack.
With the clock ticking down in extra time and, the prospect of a dreaded penalty shoot-out a distinct probability, the impressive Kirk Millar sent over a most delicious cross from the right and big Bates launched himself. Once he made contact with his head, there was only going to be one outcome.
The dismissal of young Smyth and that of United defender Johnny Taylor, who appeared to hit out at Blues new boy Ross Gaynor, all added to what was a dramatic fifth round tie.
“I know Batsey has been disappointed . . . he has been frustrated, but he responded the right way by grabbing the winner,” added Healy. “He came on and held the ball up well and, when you are playing with one (man) up, it gave us a little platform.
“I’ve been in his shoes in terms of being left out of teams. But he came on an showed a bit of guts. He was in the right spot at the right tie to get the winner -- it was big goal for us.
“I keep using the word character . . . and we showed plenty of that,” he added. It was a typical cup tie. It wasn’t pretty -- but we got the job done. Character and guts got us through, along with that wee bit of quality we got with winner.”
The Blues have home advantage over Armagh City on February 6, but Healy is taking nothing for granted. He added: “It’s another home tie which is all you can ask for in the cup. By no means will I be taking Armagh lightly, they’ll be getting our full respect.
“They are in the last 16, so they are a good side. We’ll do our homework on them. Hopefully, I’ll get to watch them.”
United chief Glenn Ferguson admitted his boys ‘switched off’ to gift Linfield their winner.
“We had a number of chances to win it, but failed to take them,” he said. “When Linfield went down to 10 men, we thought the job was
for their winner. For some reason, we couldn’t take advantage of the extra man.
“But as often happens, when a team is reduced to 10 men, they seem to find another gear and everyone works that bit harder. We needed someone to take control . . . put their foot on the ball and pass it better. Instead, we started to go long and tried to get the ball forward quicker -- and it cost us.
“On the positive side, we proved we can match Linfield. We did have good chances in the second half, so we need to be more clinical in the box. We now have a chance to put it right in the Shield final on Tuesday.”