With just 20 minutes plus of play in normal time left the Solitude Reds were 2-0 down to Coleraine in the League Cup final and my Sunday was going from bad to worse.
My English team Everton were losing 1-0 to Wolves and were now hovering over the trap door to relegation from the Premier League but the North Belfast side I have supported since the 1970s were digging deep.
The contrast between the abject, shirking, surrender-monkey attitude of Goodison Park’s millionaire players and the dogged, determined, indefatigable resistance of the Reds was glaring.
A couple of inspired substitutions by the Reds’ manager Paddy McLaughlin and the tenacity of his squad eventually turned around the 2-0 deficit to clinch the trophy 4-3 in extra-time.
Cliftonville had saved my Sunday, my season and - temporarily at least - my sanity.
This first-ever Sunday senior cup final will stay with me to the last day I am ever able to attend a local football game. At the opening of the contest, Windsor Park smelt like it was Hallowe’en with acrid smoke hanging in the air even after the flames leaping out of black containers had been extinguished. Bangers later exploded and then red mist from flares emitted from the upper deck of the North Stand.
Midway through a turgid first half a rainbow thickened in the sky above the North Stand roof with a clear, clean view of the Cavehill mountain behind it. A second rainbow tried to break through the gloom in the second half, but it was a portent rather than a positive sign for Cliftonville.
Coleraine’s Matthew Shevlin scored the Bannsiders’ first goal. I had that sinking déjà vu feeling that here-we-go-again and welcome back to my ‘Annus Horriblis’ of 2018! A few minutes later the Reds were 2-0 behind thanks to an outstanding strike by Coleraine’s Stephen Lowry.
Two intelligent substitutions – Joe Gormley and Paul O’Neill – were the game-changers and Cliftonville had levelled the score, forcing extra-time. Fired up by this incredible comeback, Gormley and O’Neill scored one more goal each to secure the win, memories of 2018 were fading, memories of the back-to-back Irish League championships of 2013 and 2014 were eclipsing them instead.
Without underestimating the way Cliftonville had refused to drop their heads while two-nil down, there was another important winner in Sunday’s BetMcLean League Cup final – local football.
This was the first final ever played at senior level on a Sunday in Northern Ireland and, judging by the attendance (more than 11,000), in my view it had been a masterstroke decision to stage the game on the Sabbath.
Fellow Red and just like me an equally-suffering Evertonian, the veteran UTV political journalist Ken Reid, told me the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Football League deserved praise.
“I feel that one of the big winners today was Gerard Lawlor,” Ken said. “It was his idea for a Sunday fixture and what an atmosphere at Windsor Park on the day!.”
More history was made at this game with it turning out to be the largest-ever attended League Cup final.
As for the atmosphere, the noise, the incessant chanting, the banners from both sets of fans billowing in the strong winds whipping across Windsor, it transported me back to nearly four years ago.
I went back to precisely 4 May 2018 and the last time Cliftonville took on Coleraine in a cup final.
This was the day that the Reds lost 3-1 to the Bannsiders in the Irish Cup final, convincing older Cliftonville fans including this writer that since 1979 the Reds have been “cursed” in that competition.
Back then I put on a brave face in the North Stand, having just been double diagnosed with a genetic heart condition and gastric cancer.
My double-whammy leaked out on the Internet and even before the 2018 Irish Cup final Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with get-well-soon support, and kind wishes.
Among those who sent kind messages of support was Coleraine manger Oran Kearney. On behalf of his club and their supporters Oran wrote a caring and comforting missive to me which was very touching. Before kick-off today I remembered Oran’s warm words and I was determined to use this column to finally thank him and Coleraine for that.
After extra-time and Cliftonville’s victory our manager Paddy McLaughlin, who was alongside Joe ‘The Goal’ Gormley (who scored two of Cliftonville’s four goals) in the National Stadium’s media centre, succinctly summed up why his side had come back from the cusp of defeat to victory.
Paddy said there was no substitute for “heart and desire”.
Heart and Desire! That is a quality lacking in the other team I support at present. I am proud of Cliftonville today and I am more convinced than ever that Irish League football at present is in a healthy, growing, progressive place.
For those of you that haven’t passed through the turnstiles of Windsor, Solitude, the Showgrounds, the Oval, Mourneview and all the other grounds of our local game for some time, please come back and bring loads of newbies with you.
Meantime, Paddy McLaughlin if you could get on the phone to Frank Lampard and give him some tips on how to inspire players on the floor after shipping two goals, please do!
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