Coleraine edge Irish Cup final as Cliftonville's famine goes on
Tennent’s Irish Cup final: Cliftonville 1 Coleraine 3
ORAN Kearney lost “five or six seconds” of Saturday’s dramatic Irish Cup final triumph over Cliftonville.
It happened as soon as Eoin ‘Skinner’ Bradley broke clear and dinked the ball over Reds ‘keeper Brian Neeson in stoppage-time to secure the silverware.
As the ball rolled into the unguarded net to make it 3-1 - virtually the last kick of the game - the Coleraine manager was already charging down the touchline to embrace ‘Skinner’ in front of the club’s delirious supporters.
If you’d asked Kearney right then, he would have adopted the ageless Coleraine striker.
Kearney’s mad charge towards the corner flag was reminiscent of Jose Mourinho’s crazy sideline dash when his Porto side knocked Manchester United out of the Champions League.
Second-half goals from Darren McCauley, Aaron Burns and Bradley saw Coleraine take the Irish Cup home to the North West for the first time since 2003.
Rory Donnelly hauled Cliftonville level for a brief time before Burns and Bradley rose to the occasion in the closing stages of a pulsating final.
In the press room afterwards, the Coleraine boss couldn’t actually remember how he ended up on the pitch celebrating his side’s third before the final whistle had sounded.
“Time stands still,” Kearney explained. “All noise disappears, in a flash you score, and you literally lose five or six seconds… And probably my celebration was that. I found myself on the pitch and thinking: ‘What am I doing? Why am I here?’”
Few people in the local game would begrudge Kearney his moment of glory after seven-and-a-half years in the Coleraine hot seat.
“I’ve scored goals in Europe, I won cups and leagues at Linfield, but I’ll be brutally honest, the release of emotion that I felt when Skinner’s goal went in… because it was closure, it was done, it was nothing I’ve ever felt before in my life.”
While Skinner’s cool finish will be replayed over and over, it was Coleraine’s second goal that effectively sealed the cup.
The Cliftonville defenders will have recurring nightmares over how they allowed goalkeeper Chris Johns’ long, mis-hit punt to bobble through the centre of their defence and for Coleraine’s second-half substitute Aaron Burns to breeze through unopposed to slot past Neeson to make it 2-1.
It was a goal you wouldn’t see on a park pitch on a Sunday morning.
Earlier, Rory Donnelly equalised with a tap in for the Reds a few minutes after McCauley opened Coleraine’s account with a spectacular strike in the 50th minute.
When the north Belfast men fell behind for a second time in the 78th minute, they didn’t really threaten the Coleraine goal, although they did have a legitimate penalty claim turned down when defender Adam Mullan appeared to foul Rory Donnelly just as the striker was about to shoot.
“I’m hugely disappointed but I’m immensely proud of the players, the staff, the board and supporters – not just for today but the whole season,” said Reds boss Barry Gray.
“We’re gutted that we couldn’t deliver for those people who have supported us all year long.
“I thought we could win it at nil-nil, when we were one down, at 1-1, even at 2-1 down, I still thought we could go on and do it.
“The players have shown me a real bright light shining for going forward, I seen more character, more desire, more hunger from the players to be successful than I have all year, and the bond and connection between me and the players has never been stronger.”
Post-match conversation inevitably turned to the IFA’s decision to insist on ‘God Save the Queen’ being played before Saturday’s final, even though the anthem was dropped for Cliftonville’s previous final appearances in 2009 and 2013 in the interests of fostering a “politically neutral environment”.
Gray and his Cliftonville players linked arms and bowed their heads in dignified protest while the club’s fans, residing in the north stand, did their best to drown out the anthem.
While the north Belfast club was clearly irked by the IFA’s controversial decision to play ‘God Save the Queen’, Gray was in no mood to discuss the matter afterwards.
“I’ve said it to the players and I’ll say it now, I’m here to talk about football,” said Gray.
“We’ve just played an Irish Cup final and no disrespect to any of the reporters here that want a comment on it, we won’t be commenting on it. It had no impact.”
On Saturday night, Reds chairman Gerard Lawlor thanked the management staff and players for “showing outstanding restraint and dignity. You’ve done the club proud… As for anyone from outside who feels the right to score points against our club, I couldn’t care less - your opinions mean nothing to me.”
Gray was miffed by his side’s meek concession of a second goal and referee Arnold Hunter’s decision to wave away Cliftonville’s penalty claim.
On Coleraine’s second goal, he said: “I’ve never seen a ball bobble for 90 yards in my life, let alone bobble and then hit the net.
“It was just a freak goal. It’s a massive disappointment for me, particularly the fashion that we conceded that goal because it was avoidable. Good luck to Coleraine, they got it and I’ve great respect for Oran and what he’s done this year.
“We were probably 30 minutes away from having a fantastic season. Coleraine have gone the whole season losing one game and being in an Irish Cup final. They finished second in the league and could have lost the final and we could have won the Irish Cup and the question would have been: Who’s had the more successful season?
“We’re two strikes of the ball – or a penalty away – from having a brilliant season versus their season and them having nothing to show for it. That’s the margins. If they’re the leaders then how far away are we from the leading pack?”
Cliftonville, hoping to end an agonising 39-year wait for the Irish Cup, held territorial advantage in a lively first half with Joe Gormley and Jay Donnelly going close while at the other end ‘Skinner’ Bradley almost capitalised on a defensive mix-up but his effort landed on top of the Reds net.
Goalless in the first half, Saturday’s final bloomed in the second half, with Coleraine taking their chances when it mattered.
Kearney revealed the pain of losing last year’s cup decider to Linfield drove his players on and insisted that a second consecutive final defeat would have deemed their season a failure.
“I received, I wouldn’t say, patronising text messages during the week, but all the best wishes in the world, people said: ‘It’s been a brilliant season, unlucky for not winning the league, no matter what happens next Saturday, you should be proud of your efforts.’
“If I heard that once I heard it 100 times. I rattled the players on Tuesday night and Thursday night and before the game that this season wouldn’t be a success unless we put something on the table. And people say: ‘You deserve it’, but you don’t always get what you deserve. You’ve got to go and earn it.”
Kearney also paid a heartfelt tribute to his chairman Colin McKendry for his “testicular fortitude” and sticking with him in some dark days.
“You just want to win that first trophy. I always thought the hardest part of the ladder would be the last part, which is winning something. When you see the celebrations in the changing room you see what it means to people. I think it’s going to be a massive catalyst for us to go to the next level.
“And Colin, in particular, has been an absolute rock for me. He’s walking on air and he absolutely deserves it because he had the testicular fortitude when other people didn’t want to stick by me, and he gets his reward now.”
Goalscorer Aaron Burns, who celebrated his fourth Irish Cup winner’s medal on Saturday, joined the Bannsiders mid-season after being released by Linfield.
“Being let go by Linfield, your confidence does take a hit,” said the 25-year-old.
“At Linfield, I would never have been seen as a fans’ favourite, regardless if I’d a good game or scored a couple of goals.
“A large number of the Linfield fans were waiting for my next bad game to criticise me.
“But it’s nice to have fans that back you straight away even when you’ve had bad games, which you do have. You’re only human. That Coleraine support has a massive impact on that squad.”
While the celebrations up in Coleraine will go on for some days yet, the Cliftonville players have a crucial European qualification play-off with Ballymena United on Wednesday night.
Dejected Reds captain Chris Curran said: “The thing that hurts most is the backing we got from the supporters, even this morning getting on the bus and the crowds that gathered to send us off, they were unbelievable.
“Not being able to pay them back is hard but that’s just another reason why this week is so important, to try and give them something back.”
Cliftonville: B Neeson, T Cosgrove, L Ives (S Grimes 85), J Harney, G Breen (R Harkin 85), L Bagnall, C McDonald, J Donnelly, C Curran (S Garrett 73), J Gormley, R Donnelly Subs not used: J McGovern, R Lavery, J Winchester, D Dunne,
Coleraine: C Johns, A Mullan, A Traynor, G McConaghie, S O’Donnell, C Harkin, B Lyons, S Dooley (I Parkhill 32), J McGonigle (A Burns 61), E Bradley, D McCauley (M Smith 86) Subs not used: S Douglas, D Ogilby, M Kirk, M Dougherty
Referee: A Hunter
CLIFTONVILLE PLAYER RATINGS
Brian Neeson: Had no chance of saving any of Coleraine’s three goals. Got into an early mix-up with Harney that almost proved costly. Always keen to go long rather than throw the ball out to his back line. 6
Tomas Cosgrove: Solid performance. Aaron Burns was already on his way when the ball somehow made its way right through the middle of the Reds defence. But the fault primarily lay in the centre more than Cosgrove's flank. 6
Levi Ives: Full-blooded in the tackle but might have kept his head better a couple of times. Gave some cheap possession away. 5
Jamie Harney: Picked up a first half yellow card but was otherwise good in most things he did. The Reds defence was desperately square for Coleraine’s second strike. 6
Garry Breen: A surprise starter given his recent injury woes but he put in a battling display at the heart of the Reds defence. Didn’t lose anything in the air against ‘Skinner’ Bradley, but didn’t sniff out the danger for Burns’ goal. 7
Liam Bagnall: He wasn’t overly taxed by Coleraine’s central midfielders but he didn’t initiate enough moves from his midfield anchor role and was inclined to go into crowded areas rather than step away to gain possession. 5
Conor McDonald: He was given licence to push forward from central midfield and it was his brave run that cut open the Coleraine defence for the equaliser. Emptied the tank. 6
Jay Donnelly: He threatened to give Coleraine’s stand-in right back Adam Mullan a tough time of it early on, but didn't live up to his early promise. 5
Chris Curran: Expended a huge amount of energy in an all-action first half, but didn’t get free of Aaron Traynor at any stage. Despite being well contained in the second half, it was still a surprise to see him being withdrawn rather than Jay Donnelly. 6
Joe Gormley: ‘Joe The Goal’ didn’t get on the score-sheet but he was always a threat and used what possession he had wisely. Well marshalled by Coleraine’s central defence. 6
Rory Donnelly: Grabbed the equaliser and competed well in the air but space was at a premium against a well-drilled Coleraine defence. Should have had a penalty. 6
Stevie Garrett: Added a bit more spark to Cliftonville’s right flank and had one decent effort on goal. 5
Ruairi Harkin: Showed urgency in the closing stages. 5
Shane Grimes: Caught for Coleraine's third goal. 5
COLERAINE PLAYER RATINGS
Chris Johns: Some nervy moments under the high ball and had a bit of difficulty with a couple of his clearances. His long, mis-hit punt led to Coleraine’s second killer goal. 6
Adam Mullan: The suspended Lyndon Kane left big shoes to fill and although Mullan played most of this final on an early yellow, he nullified Jay Donnelly's threat but could easily have conceded a second half penalty. 7
Aaron Traynor: The former Carrick defender is one of Coleraine’s unsung heroes. The canny left back kept Chris Curran under wraps and never panicked in possession. Set up McCauley’s opening goal. 8
Gareth McConaghie: You could take your pick from any of Coleraine’s back four for the man-of-the-match award. Didn’t do anything fancy. Won nearly every ball. You can’t ask for more than that from your centre half. 8
Stephen O’Donnell: Absorbed an early yellow card but put in an incredible defensive shift alongside McConaghie. No mistakes. 8
Ciaron Harkin: The defensive midfielder had a hand in his side’s opening goal and broke even with Cliftonville’s midfield. But some of his passes didn’t reach their target at times. 6
Brad Lyons: Perpetual movement for the entire 90-plus minutes but didn’t really threaten in the same way his opposite number – Conor McDonald – did. 5
Stephen Dooley: The former Cork City midfielder was doing a decent job down Coleraine’s right flank before suffering a bad injury after being felled by Chris Curran. 6
Jamie McGonigle: Had a great chance to open the scoring but failed to connect with a header. Subdued thereafter and was replaced by Aaron Burns on the hour mark. 5
Eoin Bradley: The Glenullin man’s finish in stoppage-time was Roy-of-the-Rovers stuff and he may lay claim to assisting for Burns’ goal. Kept Harney and Breen honest throughout. The 34-year-old celebrated his second Irish Cup winner’s medal. 7
Darren McCauley: Fantastic technique to find the net in the early stages of the second half. The former Celtic trainee was always productive in possession. 7
Ian Parkhill: Hit two excellent crosses before the end of the first half. Good pace but his influence waned in the second half. 6
Aaron Burns: Given a half hour to make an impression and scored a typical Aaron Burns goal, timing his run from deep and finishing confidently past Brian Neeson. 7
Martin Smith: Picked up a yellow card during the few minutes he was on the pitch. 5