Cliftonville deliver sting in the tail
Cliftonville 0 Crusaders 0: We should have predicted it. From the moment Wasp Solutions agreed to sponsor the League Cup final there was going to be a sting in the tail for someone.
On a bitterly cold January evening at Solitude it was Crusaders who felt that pain.
Losing a cup final is hard to stomach. Losing after a penalty shoot-out is heartbreaking.
But Crusaders can have no complaints. Their goalkeeper Sean O'Neill hit the nail squarely on its head after the game when he said the best team won.
Had the Crues triumphed after the penalty shoot-out, their neighbours would be right to claim an injustice had occurred.
Tommy Breslin's side had more zip, drive and conviction going forward.
Yes, Crusaders had opportunities to win the final but keeper Conor Devlin blocked shots from Paul Heatley and Declan Caddell while on two occasions Jordan Owens came close but not close enough.
But if this was a boxing match, the Crues would have earned praise for going the distance but lost on points.
They survived until extra-time only because their defence, including the outstanding Paul Leeman and Colin Coates, fought for their lives.
There's very little wrong with Crusaders' rearguard but they aren't creating enough opportunities or taking enough chances. If boss Stephen Baxter had Liam Boyce and Joe Gormley leading his attack, the Hatchetmen would stroll to the league title. Those two dangermen were kept largely quiet but Leeman was fortunate not to concede a penalty when he caught Gormley in the box.
And the former Glentoran skipper enjoyed more luck when he escaped a second booking after clattering into Chris Curran.
Already cautioned by referee Raymond Hetherington for an earlier lunge on Boyce, the Dungannon whistler showed mercy when the experienced centre-back raised both arms in a gesture which indicated he feared the worst.
Leeman was a lucky boy but Crusaders' fortune deserted them in the shoot-out.
Anyone who feels penalties are a lottery ignores the reality they require nerves of steel, composure and the ability to deliver under pressure.
Gary McCutcheon and Nathan Hanley scored from the spot but Coates, Owens and Craig McClean failed to convert.
However, anyone brave enough to take a spot-kick in these circumstances should be immune from criticism.
George McMullan missed for the Reds but as the temperature dropped, Gormley, Diarmuid O'Carroll and Ciaran Caldwell remained ice cool. When McClean's effort beat the post the Cliftonville celebrations began in earnest.
The players are now history boys – it's taken the club over 100 years to retain a trophy after the Irish Cup triumphs of 1900 and 1901. And they are deserved winners. From the first whistle their hunger to succeed shone through.
O'Neill denied Marc Smyth in the first minute and the Crues keeper cut a relieved figure when Boyce's header drifted wide in the 28th minute.
Donnelly's late chip dropped the wrong side of the crossbar and O'Neill had to make further smart saves from McMullan and Boyce.
But the Reds might have sealed the win earlier if Leeman had been sent off following the Curran challenge or a penalty awarded for his foul on Boyce.
Rival managers Breslin and Baxter now embark on fresh starts. The Reds have a golden opportunity to apply significant pressure on league leaders Linfield at Solitude next Saturday.
Their League Cup triumph last season gave them the impetus to get across the line first in the title race and it could have a similar effect this season.
Breslin, winner of Coach of the Year while Cliftonville won Team of the Year at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards, said: "What Linfield have achieved – in winning six doubles in seven years – takes a desire and hunger.
"I want people to go to the next level and I told the players what Tony McCoy said at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards.
"When he gets up every day he wants to be better than the day before. That's the attitude we have to have."
Meanwhile, Crusaders must go back to the drawing board. Richard Clarke's experience will be vital but they are not firing on all cylinders.
Baxter said: "The game's gone. It's a one-off cup final but we have been working hard since July and I am seeing one or two tired legs.
"We need to see a freshness about us and the squad will be called upon."
Crusaders take on Linfield in the County Antrim Shield final next month – just don't mention penalties.
Boyce hails keeper for doing his homework
Cliftonville striker Liam Boyce was thrilled to see Conor Devlin's penalty-taking research reap its reward.
The Reds stopper stayed up until 3am on Friday night examining his opponent's spot-kick habits and it worked a treat.
Boyce, who limped out of the action in extra-time, was thrilled to see Devlin deny Colin Coates and Jordan Owens in the shoot-out.
"At the start of the season he was a bit patchy," said Boyce.
"Last season he was the best keeper in the league but this year he made a few mistakes at the start.
"But he got his head straight after maybe some of the paper talk got to his head and he has proved the critics wrong. In the shoot-out he produced two great saves.
"In a final you have to ride your luck sometimes. George (McMullan) missed a chance from close-range but we hung in there. Just to come through with a trophy is unbelievable."
The Northern Ireland striker hopes the Reds can now find an extra gear in the title race.
"We haven't been playing our best football this season and it has been a concern," he added.
"We set the benchmark last year but haven't really reached those levels.
"We have a big match against Linfield in which we can close the gap to two points.
"After the Irish Cup defeat we knew performances were not good enough.
"We can't complain when the manager leaves us out if we do not perform.
"We know we will get chances in matches – it's just a question of whether we can take them."
Diarmuid O'Carroll, who slotted in one of the spot-kicks, added: "It's a fantastic feeling.
"It's a nice lift going into the big Linfield game (on Saturday). Results have dipped a bit recently so this is a great result for us.
"Last season's League Cup win was a catalyst for us to go on a long unbeaten run that saw us win the league so hopefully we can do the same.
"We have a unique squad with a few senior lads who have been here in the dodgy times and been through the relegation battles. You also have young talented boys who want to go further in the game so it's a nice blend. The senior lads can help the younger boys and the younger ones show no fear. They aren't too concerned with the stats and the traditions.
"Joe Gormley or Liam Boyce couldn't tell you about our records unless they made them!"
Man of the match Ryan Catney hailed the side's history-making exploits.
"I heard it's the first time in over 100 years Cliftonville has retained a trophy so it's another bit of history for this team," he said.
"We have found out this season how much teams raise their games against the champions. It was a typical Irish League game with the hustle and bustle that comes with it. If you can win the midfield battle you can win most games and we battled hard."
Coates suffering after penalty horror
Colin Coates has admitted he needs to work on regaining confidence before striking a penalty again.
The Crusaders skipper saw his effort in the shoot-out fail to beat goalkeeper Conor Devlin and the Reds went on to retain the League Cup.
Coates missed a penalty against Cliftonville at Seaview on Boxing Day and it was a similar tale of woe at Solitude.
"You can score or miss a penalty and I've missed the last few so I think there's a wee bit of doubt creeping in there now," he said.
"I need to go back and practise them. I've put my hand up to take penalties but there's probably a little doubt there which is natural after what happened on Boxing Day.
"I will have to build up confidence again when taking them but I'm probably not first choice taker. Gary McCutcheon should be the man to hit them."
The centre-back touched Devlin's beard before he struck his spot-kick but the keeper did his job.
"It was just a bit of banter," he added. "It's the Irish League and I think that keeps it unique from other leagues like the Premiership in England where everything is serious. It was banter and he had the last laugh so that was it."
The six-times capped Northern Ireland international is hurting like his team-mates but there are plenty of prizes still up for grabs this season.
He added: "It's a blow but it might help us push on to better things. In the last six to eight weeks we haven't been playing particularly well.
"We have been defending very well and not giving many goals away but we have also been toothless. It's strange because we have players who can get the ball down and attack teams.
"We need to get back to scoring three, four or five goals like earlier in the season.
"There are games in which we scored early and the game was over.
"We don't seem to have that zip at the minute and we need to work together to get it again.
"Since we hit the top of the league we haven't been great but we still have the Irish Cup and Setanta Cups to go for as well as an outside chance in the league.
"It's disappointing to lose a cup final but we lost on penalties. We have won and lost on penalties and it's a lottery."