So the last game of my season rolls round. And it’s a very special one.
Game 32: Irish Cup Final – Coleraine 3-1 Cliftonville (The National Stadium, Windsor Park, Belfast – 5.5.2018)
Last year I rounded off my season by travelling home to watch Coleraine in their first Irish Cup Final for nine years. The less said about that the better. So when the Bannsiders made it back to the showpiece one year later, I was torn. Could I face that disappointment again? But could I ever forgive myself if I stayed in Spain and missed a first trophy in 15 years?
In the end, I decided I couldn’t miss it. So on Friday 4th May, I set off from Huelva, getting the bus to Faro airport and then after a short wait, boarding my flight back to Belfast International. A good night’s sleep at home was followed by an early start for the drive over to Coleraine to watch the team bus leaving from The Showgrounds or rather, as it turned out, drive past The Showgrounds. Maybe wisely, the club’s management had decided to have the squad meet elsewhere in the town, perhaps believing that the atmosphere at the ground the previous year had proved a distraction and had had a negative effect on their performance once they got on the pitch at the national stadium. Having seen the bus pass by and walked through the haze of blue and white smoke from the flares set off at the bottom of the Ballycastle Road, I set off for my Cup Final breakfast, you don’t get more Northern Irish than a toasted soda with sausage, bacon and egg. After a quick walk down the street to see the plentiful blue and white shop window decorations and have a cup of coffee, I was ready to head to Belfast.
Once in the city, I parked near the ground, coincidentally on the street I lived on for a couple of years as a student at Queen’s University. I then met my friends and had lunch before getting to the ground in time for the 2:30 kick off (it does annoy me a bit that the Irish Cup Final no longer starts at 3pm).
The South Stand was already packed out, so much to my frustration we weren’t able to get the central seats I usually look for. This meant we were a bit far away from the atmosphere, mostly coming from the Coleraine fans in the far corner and East Stand, and in the first half, most of the action. Cliftonville started strongly and enjoyed most of the possession, although Chris Johns in the Coleraine goal wasn’t overly troubled. Coleraine probably had the better opportunities of the half, though they were very much half-chances. There was a bit of a blow when Stephen Dooley had to go off injured after half an hour. It was hard not to feel sorry for him, ten years ago he had been on the losing side in the final against Linfield as a teenager, now after a few years away, he had returned to his hometown club with the aim of lifting some silverware and now his game was over prematurely.
After the cagey first half, the second one started with a bang. Aaron Traynor played a quick one-two with Ciaron Harkin before picking out the mercurial Darren McCauley with his cross and he powered an unstoppable shot into the net leaving Cliftonville ‘keeper Brian Neeson to just watch it sail past him. But back came Cliftonville, Conor McDonald danced through the Coleraine back line and put the ball on a plate for Rory Donnelly to equalise.
And so my nerves were on edge again. Cliftonville continued to have a lot of the ball but Coleraine were keeping them at arms length reasonably well. Then on 78 minutes, the key moment of the game. Chris Johns took a free kick inside his own penalty box and although he didn’t seem to strike it cleanly, it took pretty much the whole Cliftonville team out of the game. All that remained was for Eoin Bradley to touch it on into the path of Aaron Burns and he kept his cool to slot the ball past Neeson. 12 minutes plus stoppage time remained.
There was a huge scare not long after the goal as Rory Donnelly again found himself free in a shooting position inside the Coleraine box, but this time Adam Mullan slid in to make an inch-perfect tackle and dispossess the Cliftonville man. It’s a cliché I know, but that tackle was almost as big as another goal. Mis-time it and it’s a penalty. It’s hard to accurately put into words my feelings of relief as Mullan swept the ball away.
Time ticked away, but to me, seconds seemed like minutes and minutes seemed like hours as Cliftonville threw everything they had at Coleraine to try and force extra time. In the 94th minute, Coleraine cleared another aimless long punt into the box, Cliftonville substitute Shane Grimes went to collect the ball but slipped, leaving Bradley with a clear run on goal. He raced away from the defenders desperately running back to cover, cut inside on his favoured left foot and delightfully chipped the ball over Neeson. 3-1!
Cue pandemonium. In the stands the tension that had been building up since Burns’ goal was released in an outpouring of joy. On the pitch Bradley was buried under his celebrating team mates and manager Oran Kearney produced the best touchline dash since Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford in 2004 to get in the middle of it all. There was barely time left for anything more than a kick off before the celebrations on the pitch could resume. Then, the long awaited moment as the players went up to get their medals and Steven Douglas and Stephen O’Donnell lifted the trophy together.
However, the celebrations didn’t end there on the pitch, they would continue long into the night as the team brought the trophy back to The Showgrounds in Coleraine and fans packed into the stand to get a glimpse of the trophy and then inside the social club where many lucky fans, including yours truly, managed to get their hands on the famous old trophy.
Fifteen years. Fifteen years of hurt. Fifteen years without a moment like that to celebrate. Some might say that the wait made it even sweeter. Maybe that’s true, I just hope I don’t have to wait that long again!
All-in-all, I couldn’t think of a better way to bring my 2017/18 season to an end. When I took my seat for Coleraine v Haugesund of Norway in the Europa League qualifying round back in July, I wasn’t even thinking of how the season might end. Over the course of the following months I had some amazing experiences, saw some unbelievable goals, watched some of the best players in the world, but nothing comes close to the moment Eoin Bradley’s shot found the back of the net. Those are the moments we live for, the ones that we replay over and over again in our minds for years to come.