The Hales, Chrissy Curran, Joe Gormley, Jim Magilton - immortalised forever in Cliftonville folklore

Reds end 45-year wait for Irish Cup

Clearer Water Irish Cup Final
Cliftonville Fans  during this Afternoon’s game at NFS @ Windsor Park, Belfast.  
Photo - Andrew McCarroll/ Pacemaker Press
The Cliftonville fans salute Irish Cup final hero Ronan Hale (Andrew McCarroll/Andrew McCarroll/ Pacemaker Press)
Clearer Water Irish Cup final: Linfield 1 Cliftonville 3 (aet)

From Brendan Crossan at Windsor Park

YOU can coach what’s in someone’s boots – but you can’t coach what’s in someone’s heart.

What separated Cliftonville and Linfield in Saturday’s epic Irish Cup final at a wonderfully raucous Windsor Park can be boiled down to one single thing: heart.

Jim Magilton, Joe Gormley, Chris Curran, Patrick Burns and Rory Hale entered a buoyant press conference room at different stages on Saturday evening to reflect on what felt like the greatest day in Cliftonville’s 145-year history.

Rory Hale articulated it best.

Clutching a tin of beer, the Newington man said: “In extra-time, boys were dropping like flies, boys were cramping up, and the crowd gave us that extra 10 per cent to get up and run - and run more. Who cares if you’re cramping – run again.”

In those disjointed, fractious, nerve-shredding, tumultuous two 15-minute periods of extra-time, and with the Cliftonville players hanging on to a slender 2-1 advantage for dear life, each one of the 14,898 supporters who were crammed into Windsor Park never felt more alive.

Sporting occasions like Saturday transport us to a spiritual place, beyond human identification, where words are of no consequence and so we surrender all sense of reason and surf with our souls.

For the thousands of Cliftonville fans who were there, it’s a journey they will never forget and never quite understand.

When they attempt to tell their Irish Cup final story in years to come, all they will be able to say is: ‘I was there’. And that will be enough.

Forty-five years of misery was wiped away as Ronan Hale ran over half the length of the Windsor Park pitch with just seconds remaining, unopposed, absolutely delighted with himself and for everybody, knowing that he would tap the ball into to an empty net and win the Irish Cup.

Chris Curran and Joe Gormley lift the Irish Cup Cliftonville's win over Linfield in Saturday's final at Windsor Park on Saturday
Chris Curran and Joe Gormley lift the Irish Cup after beating Linfield 3-1 after extra-time at Windsor Park on Saturday (Andrew McCarroll/Andrew McCarroll/ Pacemaker Press)

The striker scored an absolute beauty in the early throes of extra-time to put the Reds 2-1 in front after an impudent piece of skill and through pass from the effervescent Ben Wilson – but his second goal of the day is the one that people will always remember.

Running all alone towards an ecstatic sea of red in the West Stand, formerly the old Spion Kop, pushing the ball home and then collapsing to the ground.

In that moment, Ronan Hale was immortalised in the hearts and minds of the Red Army.

Watching on from his technical area, all Jim Magilton could think about was the infamous Devon Loch – the horse that inexplicably fell going down the home stretch of the 1956 Grand National race.

“I was just thinking, he’s going to fall over. He’s dead!” Magilton told reporters, laughing.

“I was thinking Devon Loch… That moment is hard to describe but it’s the realisation that you’ve won the cup.”

One of the most inspiring things that unfolded during Saturday’s pulsating decider was how the Cliftonville players made a friend out of adversity.

In the opening half hour of the final, Linfield were running over the top of Cliftonville’s lofty idea of winning their first Irish Cup since 1979.

Wide men Joel Cooper and Kirk Millar were swaggering down either flank. The age-defying Jamie Mulgrew was playing like Busquets in midfield and Chris Shields exuding all his trademark nonchalance at the back.

Ethan McGee opened the scoring for Linfield with a powerful header on 14 minutes following a free-kick from the right side and the Blues threatened to push further ahead.

Cliftonville were all at sea and in danger of drowning in the occasion. Nervy, hesitant and treating the ball like an imposter.

In those desperate moments, Rory Hale – a peerless artist of the local game – was one of the few Cliftonville players who seemed unfazed by the day.

The opening 45 minutes presented huge challenges to Jim Magilton, particularly when the Reds manager was forced to make two personnel changes with goalkeeper David Odumosu and Odhran Casey (broken leg) suffering injury.

Back-up keeper Nathan Gartside deserves a serious amount of credit for the way he performed after being thrusted into the action on 37 minutes, while Luke Kenny did a sterling job in defence in place of the desperately unfortunate Casey.

Half-time was a Godsend to Cliftonville. To be only 1-0 down felt like a triumph.

Sam Ashford’s glancing header on 52 minutes from Rory Hale’s perfect cross put the Reds back on level terms and it had a major settling effect on the entire team.

But the challenges kept coming at the Cliftonville players and management. Every substitution was crucial especially with so many players collapsing with cramp.

Joshua Archer, Braiden Graham and Matthew Clarke were introduced by Linfield boss David Healy and later Jordan Stewart in a bid to break down the Reds defence.

Conor Pepper, on his 30th birthday, left everything of himself on the field before being replaced by Chris Curran. Sean Stewart was forced to make way for Stephen Mallon on the left and Ben Wilson took over from Ashford.

Even in extra-time Shea Gordon’s energy was epic and much needed for the eventual winners.

“As much as we get caught up in the emotion, it’s really important that I stand back off that,” said Magilton during one of the few serious moments of his post-match press conference.

“Gerard [Lyttle] helps me with that too. I could clearly see where we needed to make the subtle changes that we had to make. That’s my job. That’s what I’m paid to do.

“There are moments in a game where you can be slightly rash – of course you can – but I was very clear where we needed strengthening or we needed to reinforce positives.

“I still felt Linfield were so open to the counterattack and that proved to be the case. The players were very, very astute in terms the information they took in all week...”

Cliftonville Ronan Hale  celebrates his goal     In todays   game  in Windsor Pk Belfast Cliftonville v Linfield in the Clearer Water irish Cup Final  4/5\/24  Pacemaker Press
Cliftonville's Ronan Hale in dreamland (Desmond Loughery/Pacemaker Press)

It’s no exaggeration to say that Cliftonville had heroes in every blood-red jersey on Saturday.

Patrick Burns was magnificent. Only signed by the north Belfast club in January, the Crumlin native had to adapt quickly to a very nuanced and unfamiliar defensive role.

The stress tests he faced on Saturday were many – and he was absolutely immense in every scenario he found himself in.

Jonny Addis was unflappable. You can see why he’s celebrated in song among the Cliftonville faithful.

When others are losing their heads around him, Ronan Doherty never does. What a final performance. Nobody beats the Carndonagh man at football. Nobody.

Casey was brilliant until his terrible injury on the stroke of half-time but he has the character and fortitude to lead the Reds long into the future. Likewise, Shea Kearney who was tested time and time again – and stood up like a seasoned veteran.

Without the Hale brothers, Cliftonville would not be Irish Cup winners today.

Never once did Stephen Mallon blink when Millar was trying to unpick the defensive lock and Chris Curran signed off a magical playing career with the kind of granite-like professionalism no-one will ever forget around Solitude.

The way Saturday’s final played out, record goal-scorer Joe Gormley never got on the field of play – but he was the happiest man alive afterwards and serenaded reporters with a song about when Cliftonville go up to lift the Irish Cup, he’ll be there, before inviting the entire room back to his house for a party.

Linfield will wonder what happened after half-time and in extra-time. It was the kind of collapse nobody anticipated as one misplaced pass followed another.

But the truth was Cliftonville refused to lose on Saturday.

Rory Hale’s words will echo for a long time.

“Who cares if you’re cramping - run again.”

In sport, and in life, heart can take you places beyond your wildest dreams.

Like the cloths of heaven, Cliftonville fans of countless generations spread their dreams under the feet of Jim Magilton.

He never let them down.

“It’s as great a victory I’ve had in my football life,” the Cliftonville manager said.

Chris Johns: Forced to push up as Linfield chased a late equaliser. Not overly extended and was beaten by two quality finishes. 7.5
Kirk Millar: He always posed a threat right to Linfield’s last breath. 7.5
Joel Cooper: If Linfield were going to eke out a leveller, Cooper was the most likely candidate. Some wonderful trickery. 8
Daniel Finlayson: Lost his footing for Ronan Hale’s screamer but was a steady presence at the heart of the Linfield defence. 7
Chris Shields: One of the best in the Irish League. A couple of stray passes which are collector’s items these days. Didn’t sense Ashford for Cliftonville’s equaliser. 7.5
Ben Hall: Had plenty of trouble minding Ronan Hale. Some brave-hearted defending but was undone by Hale for his first goal. 7
Jamie Mulgrew: Brilliant in the opening half hour and never misplaced a pass for the 77 minutes he was on the field. 7
Kyle McClean: Outstanding talent who has lit up the Irish League this season. He was well blotted out by the Reds midfield though. 7
Ethan McGee: Brilliantly timed run to head Linfield in front but didn’t affect the game after that. 7
Matthew Fitzpatrick: Generally well marshalled as the game wore on but looked a real threat in the opening half. 7
Chris McKee: Had some very good moments before running out of gas in the last quarter in normal time. 7
Joshua Archer: Neat and tidy and added more energy. 6.5
Braiden Graham: Didn’t get any change out of the Reds defence but service wasn’t great either. 6
Matthew Clarke: Some excellent passes left to right but couldn’t break down the Reds. 6.5
Jordan Stewart: His renowned trickery didn’t trouble the Reds. 6
David Odumosu: Suffered injury and forced to withdraw before the break but dealt well with everything in a testing opening half hour. 7
Shea Kearney: Incredible first season for the former academy player. Supreme fitness levels and did well against Cooper. 7
Sean Stewart: Cat and mouse with Kirk Millar and probably broke even. Some lovely deft touches down the left flank. 7
Patrick Burns: His best game for the Reds. Showed incredible fortitude and composure under pressure. 8.5
Jonny Addis: A cult hero. Defended brilliantly at times and led the Reds through stormy times. 8
Odhran Casey: Didn’t let the occasion get to him before suffering a bad injury on the stroke of half-time. 7
Conor Pepper: Celebrating his 30th birthday, Pepper doesn’t necessarily build the play but his energy and ability to break up play were first class. 7.5
Ronan Doherty: On big days, you need calmness on the ball. Superb final even though he was running on empty in extra-time. 8
STAR MAN: Rory Hale: The best player in the Irish League. When others were struggling in the first half, it was Hale who steadied them. Brilliant assist for his side’s first goal. Wonderful final display. 9
Sam Ashford: Fully justified his inclusion despite a heavily strapped knee. Worked himself to a standstill and headed Cliftonville level. 8
Ronan Hale: His pre-goal celebrations for Cliftonville’s third at the death is already the indelible image of this final. At the double, with his first goal an absolute screamer. 8.5
Nathan Gartside: To come in cold to a cup final as he did before half-time and play as he did was hugely impressive. 8
Luke Kenny: A huge ask to come into the Reds defence and never put a foot wrong. 7.5
Chris Curran: Walks off into retirement an Irish Cup winner and club legend. Brilliant midfield shift. 8.5
Stephen Mallon: Defended so well and was very productive in possession too. 7.5
Ben Wilson: A livewire. His speed and trickery were immense. 7.5
Shea Gordon: His energy and tackling were vital in extra-time. 7.5
Linfield’s Ethan McGee celebrates after scoring the opening goal in the Irish Cup final against Cliftonville (Andrew McCarroll/Andrew McCarroll/ Pacemaker Press)