One last game for me this season, the Irish Cup Final today, as a neutral, though I was in the Glenavon end, having been in Lurgan last weekend, it made it easier for me to get a ticket there.
That’s really the first point to make – the lack of neutral tickets for this game. If somebody wanted a ticket, they had to go through one of the clubs. Anecdotally, i’d known of neutrals who wanted to go but couldn’t be bothered travelling to Lurgan or Ballymena.
Even if the IFA had their offices open. Bottom Deck of The Kop or North Stand would have been perfect for neutrals.
My ticket, was in the Bottom Deck of the North Stand with the Glenavon fans. Had a decent view of the action.
I got caught out in the first-half. I’d went as close to The Kop in the first-half, expecting Glenavon to attack there, with Ballymena attacking their own fans in the second-half, but it was the other way around, so I made a quick move to the other end, to be at the Railway End of The North Stand.
Both teams started the game nervously. Ballymena had the only real chance of the early exchanges with a shot just wide on the stretch.
Midway through the first-half, came a gutting moment for Jim Ervin, who had to be helped off the pitch injured. Felt devastated for him.
Moments later, it was Glenavon’s right-back who was leaving the pitch, but in different circumstances.
Glenavon had a corner, and Gareth McKeown got involved with Ballymena’s keeper. I only saw a coming together in the corner of my left eye. The incident resulted in a red card for McKeown. The lack of protest suggested he knew he was guilty. It was an utterly stupid thing for McKeown to do.
As a neutral, I was worried that Ballymena might take advantage within minutes, and kill the game as a spectacle.
There was a goal within minutes, but it came for Glenavon, with a long range free-kick from Kyle Neill. It was a contrast from Neill’s other goal in an Irish Cup Final, 12 years ago, a tap-in from a few yards out.
When McKeown was sent-off, subconsciously, I had a feeling that Ballymena would soon be down to ten men. They were, with Gary Thompson getting sent-off for a high tackle. I didn’t get a clear view of the incident, but the general consensus on the radio was that it was correct.
As expected, Ballymena came out for the second-half with more urgency. For all their possession, they weren’t dominant, and didn’t look like scoring in open play.
Glenavon were content with this, they didn’t need to score.
With 20 minutes to go, Ballymena got a massive stroke of luck when Glenavon keeper James McGrath misjudged a shot, putting it behind for a corner when it was going wide from goal. From the resulting corner, he missed the cross, allowing Allan Jenkins to finish from close range.
The momentum was all with Ballymena, and it looked like they would go on to win. They didn’t sieze that momentum, and allowed Glenavon back into it, taking the lead for a second time with a low Mark Patton shot.
From there, they never looked like losing. Late on, they brought on William Murphy to shore up their defence. As injury time approached, Gary Hamilton brought himself on for Guy Bates. Bates got a deserved ovation, he was Glenavon’s key man today. All their attacking play came through him.
Ballymena weren’t able to create that one chance to take the game to extra-time. To Glenavon’s credit, they didn’t take the ball to the corner flag when counter attacking,they were still putting in crosses on 92 and 93 minutes.
There was still time for one more incident as Gary Hamilton won a free kick. Tony Kane got wound up and placed the ball for him to take the free-kick to be taken. When the ball was played, Kane came in with a wild tackle on Hamilton and got a straight red card.
He let his frustration get the better of him and it let Glenavon hold on to the ball as injury time came to an end. Glenavon held on and celebrated winning the cup for the first time since 1997. Gary Hamilton even entered the crowd at the finals whistle. They were deserved winners.
They weren’t dominant, but were the better team and looked the most likely to score.
That, is the end of my football watching (barring something dramatic) until July. It might be Glenavon’s UEFA Cup tie. If they draw IFK Gothenborg, i’d go to that, purely to tick IFK off my UEFA 100 Club list.
For the next few months, my Saturday afternoons will be all about cycling. Next Saturday, it’ll be watching Giro D’Italia, the Saturdays afterwards, going out on my own bike.
Another season over, July can’t come soon enough.