From a Crusaders point of view, the 2012/13 IrnBru League Cup final was a game to forget but for the team the lessons from it are not to be forgotten.
Personally for me, the cup final day started off badly, we made the most of it but it just got worse. The game was an early evening kick off for it was being shown live on Sky Sports. So before the game we had intended to go into Belfast to go for the now traditional pre-game treat at Made-in-Belfast. Alas, NOPE. 5 minutes before we were about to set off Translink pop up on Twitter to announce that all East Belfast buses were being held in town due to protests. Don't get me started on the mindset of flag protesters.
We tried to not let that dampen our spirits... even with the rain pouring down outside as we thought up a change of plan. In the end we decided to stay local and sit in at Little Wing in Ballyhackamore for some Pizza, which was probably the highlight of the day. Yum yum.
We then got a taxi to the game but the driver didn't seem to know where he was going around Windsor Park so we ended up with an unexpected long walk around the ground in the rain. Once we'd walked past all the IrnBru people handing out pop and mini Cup Final flags, we got some hot drinks, I bought a programme and then we went up into the stand where we found some familiar faces.
After saying hello we found some seats. This time we were in the Kop. It was the first time I'd been in this stand, it was OK, decent enough leg room, but something soon hit me - literally - we were sat under a leaky bit in the roof that was dripping water every minute or so.
Thanks again Linfield! What do you actually do with the money you get and don't spend on the team or facilities? At least the grounds keeper was doing his best with a fork to try and drain some of the surface water from the pitch but as you'll see in a few moments with the photo of Yohann Lacroix in his goal-mouth, the penalty box looked like a beach that a wave had just lapped up against.
The Radio Ulster DJ Alan Simpson, who Norngirl and I refer to as 'Not Gok' (referring to Gok Wan as from afar their hair has a lot of similarity) made the introductions and he and the Cliftonville FC mascot - Red 'what am I?' Arnie - and the fans, welcomed the teams out.
The game itself didn't start too badly but we were being exposed by Cliftonville playing direct football, both long balls from defence and through balls from deep in midfield. Our own midfield seemed off the pace and left too much space in the hole where it was exploited. By not picking up runners and leaving that space it provided opportunities at the edge of the box - often with our defence on the back foot. We did have some chances ourselves too mind you and on another day might have even taken the lead against the run of play. In the end it wasn't anything clinical that broke the deadlock nor was it the Crues. Cliftonville's 1st goal had a hint of fortune about it. We were sat in a good line of sight to the shot and it was the deflection that beat the keeper, he had it covered otherwise. You can't account for that other than trying to stop the opportunity to take a shot in the first place. This didn't seem to be enough of a wake up call though. Our midfield was just being by-passed. We weren't even winning the aerial battle. What was wrong? I don't know but it was one of the worst, if not the worst performance I've seen all season. When we had the ball we couldn't seem to find a player and our best attacking assets were just passengers.
Cliftonville really deserved their 2nd goal, in the end Coates was left exposed and unfortunately was also caught flat footed. Once the ball had been taken past him, it was cut back across the box. There was a bit of a scramble to reach it and sadly it ended up over the line in a sort of real time slow motion. From then until the end of the half the Reds had the wind in their sails and pushed for a 3rd. Thankfully half time beat them to it so it was 2-0 to our North Belfast neighbours at half time.
The half time entertainment did give us a laugh. Like last year's final it was a cross-bar challenge and some well known and not well known fans of the clubs were having a go. This time the line up included Hole In The Wall Gang's - Tim McGarry and boxer Paddy Barnes. The comedy moment came from a likely looking teenager who decided to try and goad the Crues support behind the goal before taking his kick. He promptly fell on his derrière into the mud. Sadly that was the biggest cheer of the night for our end of the ground :(
In the 2nd half it was fairly even until a silly tackle saw us reduced to 10 men, Paul Heatley, one of our best players this season, seemed to get a rush of blood after being tussled with whilst running with the ball. His response was to lash out with a rash tackle. At the time I thought it a yellow but after seeing a replay, no complaints at the red card in the end.
As always it was good to see this Crues team rally and pick up their game when faced with a disadvantage. It's just a shame it took going down to 10 men to be the catalyst for us to really start playing.
We were unlucky not to pull one back and make a game of it. One chance looked a splitting image of Cliftonvilles 2nd goal but the luck just wasn't on our side and the ball agonisingly flew past everyone and out the other side of the penalty box.
As time wore on it got more stretched and with 10 men, against a Cliftonville side who have the best attacking record in the league this season, we eventually got caught on the break - twice. They were great finishes mind you, nothing more our debutant goalie Yohann Lacroix could do. Indeed he was the main silver-lining in the game as he looked a very capable goalkeeper, one stretching save to stop an almost certain goal in the 1st half especially stood out.
Our subs on the day - David Rainey and Matthew Snoddy - also looked sharp and will hopefully get some more game time in the coming weeks. Jordan Owens did come very close to pulling back an equaliser but alas, like on that day, it just wasn't to be and it cannoned back off the post to safety. The final score was 4-0.
We stayed as long as we could, though not long enough to see our team pick up their runners up medals but long enough to witness the lifting of the trophy. Only last year that had been us, but as gutting as the game had been, Cliftonville fully deserved it on the night.
We had a bus to catch so headed out of the ground. We got to the Lisburn road just in time to see the bus pull up to the stop.
Preventing us from catching this bus was the obstacle of moving vehicles in the road and about 30 meter run. Given our luck on the day we didn't bother testing it again and waited to cross the road safely, watching the bus drive off as we did.
Again, it just wasn't to be. It was just an unfortunate day from our perspective.
Since the start of January we had been avoiding alcohol. That was until that night. It wasn't a new years resolution or anything (we don't do those), it was just a break from it as we'd maybe overdone it over the Christmas period. If you follow my blog you'll know we would usually head back to Seaview to drown our sorrows after a cup final loss but with the day we were having we just wanted to go home... well, after doing one thing first. That one thing was WINE! With a relaxing bottle of red we watched some ice hockey to forget football existed for a night.
It wasn't a long football inspired downer though thanks to Leeds and a cup upset. Leeds were playing Spurs the following afternoon and won 2-1. They put a smile back on my face with both the result, performance and two great goals during what proved to be the 1st game of the post Becchio era. Since then for Leeds fortunes have swung the other way even with improved performances.
But, you know what, football ain't so bad. As the saying goes - 'you win some... you lose some'.
I still stand by the mantra that losing in sport adds to the overall experience. It might be something fickle 'prestige supporters' who support clubs with hyper-wealth and success just can't understand but passionately watching your team lose makes the wins (when they come) just that extra little sweeter, that little bit more special. So I'll not be letting it get me down and rightfully so. The Crues bounced back to a 3-0 league win in the next game and progressed to the next round of the Irish cup with a resounding 4-1 win over Glenavon. That cup game also included a Paul Heatley hat-trick!
Although the 26th January was a bad day, it was just that... one bad day. The team have already pulled themselves back on the track and there is still lots to play for in the coming months.... starting with a re-match against Cliftonville this Saturday!