Finally, the twice weather felled final of football’s County Antrim Shield went ahead on Wednesday. The teams, Crusaders Vs Linfield. The sides competing to be crowned champions of the 121 year old annual competition. The wait might have been a long one for the game to go ahead. Not to give too much away but the game was well worth the wait… especially if you’re a Crues fan.Originally scheduled for the 1st December, a date I was going to miss due to being thousands of miles away on my honeymoon, it was a late evening check of the news on a compute in the hotel that told us the pitch wasn’t playable. Happy days! The rearranged game was scheduled for another trip to the oval on January 5th. ‘Yay!’ I thought, I can make it to that one after all, happy days! Only, it wasn’t to be, for when it came to the 2nd attempt at the big day, some polar weather had already made its way south and gripped the country with its natural chill into some form of cryogenic suspension. Snow and ice outside the window meant the pitch was frozen and the only enjoyment the County Antrim Shield was likely to bring that week was if we borrowed it from Cliftonville (last years winners) and took it in turns to used the huge trophy as a sledge.
Thankfully it wasn’t long before a new date was set. Wednesday 20th January, 7.45pm at the Oval. It seemed like an age since the semi final, it turned out to be 3 months after the victory over Ballymena back on the 20th October, on that day an Aaron Black penalty was enough to book our place in the final.
So this week, time granted the date to be upon us. Preparations all set to head to the Oval after work. I had to go alone to this one as Norn Girl was ill with a case of pneumonia of all things and wasn’t able to venture from the sofa/bed, let alone out into the cold. This was harsh luck but we weren’t going to let that ruin us following the game - the morning of the game I got prepared and brought to work all I needed including my phone, camera, scarf and shirt. I also had (and still have at the time of typing this) a bad cold myself and was trying to stay as warm as possible. The day was miserable and wet but as with all match days, even with a cold, it doesn’t get in the way of the anticipation. Prior to the game it was a chance to look back at the history books, we’ve been in the final a fair few times but in last 17 years we’d lost all 6 finals we’d been in. The last of those defeats I was at when we lost 2-1 to Glentoran at Windsor back in the 2007/08 season and I still remember well.
So with that in mind, it was a mixed bag of feelings when with around 7 hours to go before kick off, precipitation had left the Oval swamped and the pitch unplayable for the 3rd time. Luckily, this time there was a plan B – a switch of the venue. With Seaview out of action for big games due to the new floodlights being installed, there was only one solution… another trip to Windsor Park - this time an enforced occasion, but another final against Linfield with the Blues having home advantage and to add to our disadvantage of 4 first team players suspended for the game.
So after work I somehow made it to the ground early and found myself walking the length of the back of the North Stand, only the top 3/5ths of the North Stand were open and it was pretty dark and gloomy. It didn’t seem to be denting the mood though as other early bird supporters passed by me with smiles on their faces. It may have been their anticipation of the game or it could have been a giggle at my slow moving attempt to make it to my seat without needing to unravel my elaborately wrapped scarf to find a tissue.
As it was still early I had a lot of choice for seats and plonked myself down almost in line with the halfway line. The North Stand at Windosr Park isn’t the best place when its been raining (Windsor Park has needed a repair job for quite a while now) and I soon remembered why as I saw a drop of water, wind assisted, hit my hat and splatter from it in a mist to the side of me. I thought to myself “Nay matter”, and got stuck into the slightly tricky process of swallowing a cold relief capsule without a drink. Whilst trying to muster enough saliva on demand to complete this task the mild irony of the situation dawned on me. As the saying goes - Water, Water Everywhere But Not a Drop to Drink.
Norn girl called before kick off and we planned for her to call during the second half to take in some of the atmosphere and between coughs and chokes, to get the odd bit of up to the minute updates from yours truly.
The game was soon under way and the choir as they’re known were continuing to keep up the good atmosphere that they’d started before kickoff. Sadly I wasn’t in a position to join in and had to settle with clapping along through gloves to the classics such as “The IFA bought your Historyyy”, hehe.
A cagey couple of minutes was followed by disaster. A hole opened up as our defense were chasing Jamie Mulgrew who was heading towards our box. With a timely flick of the foot though, the ball was rolling back into the middle and it left Billy Joe Burns all alone from inside the box with time to pick a spot and hit a quick and coolly taken shot into the back of the net. 0-1 Linfield. It wasn’t a great start for us, but we knew there was a long way to go. Thankfully the Crues players didn’t get downhearted and rose to the occasion. In the remainder of the first half there were chances for either side though the best openings were for the side in red and black but it just wasn’t going in! That changed about 5 minutes before half time. David McMaster, a rising star of the side who had signed from Abbey Villa, put the perfect cross into the box for the only Crues player in there and from a few yards out at the far post, Mark Dickson, Irish Cup hero last May, wasn’t going to miss. The ball flew into the net and we all leapt from our seats, 1-1. I cheered and coughed and cheered and coughed… it was worth it. There was a bit more action before the first half was up, a challenge on Michael Collins who was doing a great job of controlling the midfield looked a bit heavy and the ball fell to some players who decided in the heat of the moment to try to push each other in a ‘handbags at ten paces’ moment that then spilled into a ‘calm down, its only a commercial’ moment. If the ref had of wanted to, he could have probably reduced both sides to 10 men. Thankfully for the game as a spectacle, common sense reigned. Unlike the situation on boxing day in the North Belfast Derby at Seaview, where the ref let things get out of control, the ref calmed the players down and machine-gunned yellow cards at the 4 main perpetrators.
Access out of the stand was a bit tight at half time, I made my way across and tried to step down over a seat but my leg got caught and I ended up off balance and knocking into someone, thankfully no damage done and after a few sorry’s I made my way down for a refreshment break and found a cautious atmosphere amongst the other Crues fans. It wasn't long before I was back in the stand again and the 2nd half began. The songs were still being belted out behind me and how I longed to be able to join in. It was fine to hear and the game was absorbing and fairly even. Plenty of chances and close calls. I think I managed a ‘C’mon Crues’ before another cough and nose blow.
Norn girl by this stage was on the phone and I was trying to balance the odd update with keeping warm, not as easy as it sounds when you’re wearing gloves, a hat and scarf. Hopefully it wasn’t completely unsuccessful. The crowd fell silent for a few seconds as Michael Carvill hit our bar and then again around 2/3’s of the way through the game our goalkeeper Chris Keenan had to limp off injured with a thigh strain. On came his capable understudy Aaron Hogg. A good keeper but without much first team action in recent times and I have to admit it added to the nerves, he was solid though and although hardly called into action, he did everything asked of him.
With 5 minutes to go and still at 1-1 it looked to be heading to two 10 minute halves of Extra Time, out of the blue though came a moment of controversy. Linfield were on the edge of the box and a player goes down. The ref played on for a moment and it seems the incident has passed but then the referee’s assistant ,on the far side from where we were sitting, raises and waves his flag. To be honest at this stage I had very little idea how far into the game we were. A score board in the Irish League really wouldn’t go amiss. All we knew was we weren’t going to like the decision. The ref stopped play, consulted with the official and pointed to the spot. After seeing the incident on replays after the event it was touch and go as to whether he was inside the box or if indeed the incident was a deliberate trip as was alleged. However from the stands we were in disbelief. Flashbacks of the last time we played Linfield in a final at Windsor Park came to mind, back then, in the CIS cup final - we were leading 2-1 with 5 minutes left and by full time we had lost. So up stepped Jim Ervin, the ball was hit at goal and Hogg had no chance, d’oh! 1-2.
It was now or never, with Ross Arthurs on the field we now had more strikers than defenders out there and Stephen Baxter made the team pretty much go 2 at the back. We pinned them into their half. The question was; “is there still time”? There wasn’t for Norn Girls mobile which died. I called back.
Thankfully Colin Coates had the answer!
He rose to connect to a long throw from Gareth McKeown and the ball pinged from his head, past an outstretched glove, Norn Girl was probably defend, I did my cheering and coughing routine but it was all music to our ears. This was it, a lifeline and a chance. Extra time was now more than likely but there was still time for another twist of fate. It was Linfield’s Michael Carvill again involved in a dramatic moment as he challenged for the ball with McMaster who had been tormenting the Linfield defense all night with his pace. Seemingly out of frustration, with McMaster tangled under his feet he stamped on our player and promptly received the red card it warranted.
10 vs 11, extra time began and the numbers told, Linfield still had their counter attacks but especially in the first 10 minutes it seemed only a matter of when. Jordan Owens had that answer tucked up his long sleeve. In the last few minutes of the 1st period of extra time the ball flew up in the air from the head of a Linfield defender. In the right place at the right time, it fell to Owens, and he pelted the ball at goal. His shot was too powerful for the sliding defender to do anything else but divert it slightly as it crossed the line. 3-2! By now I was on my feet calling Norn Girl, going into a football state of elation… and coughing.
That wasn’t the last action though, we could have scored again. There was also the usual late pressure but unlike the pressure applied at the end of normal time by the Crues, Linfield’s last gasp attempts came to nothing, the best fell to Munster whose chance flew over the bar from a few of yards out. A miss that saved having to play out a penalty shoot out, shoot outs that always seem to have a habit of going against us.
2 minutes of injury time passed by… the whistle blew… the stand erupted… party time!
Still trying to keep warm I managed to remove my scarf and whirled it around my head. I think I might have even sung a few songs between phlegm blockages. Sorry if anyone caught anything by the way!
It was a brilliant result. Another trophy to add to the Irish Cup last May and more proof of what a never say die Crues team we have at the moment - its still early days this season and with two competitions still to play for it’ll be an entertaining ride no matter how it pans out. Brilliant stuff. If any of the players or staff ever read this - congratulations on a job well done, you made us all so proud to be Hatchetmen yet again!