Dejected, defeated and physically drained, Mark Dickson walked out of Windsor Park six years ago today convinced he would never get so close to winning an Irish Cup medal again.
His Larne team had the audacity to take the lead against Linfield before the overwhelming favourites battered the underdog with five damning goals.
The dreams the Belfast postman had harboured, of winning the cup at the home of his beloved Linfield, failed to deliver. Football had sent him a cruel card.
“I felt so low that day,” he recalled. “It was as if everything stopped and that was the chance gone.”
Yet just two seasons later Dickson’s career carousel started spinning again and by the time he got off with a concerning knee injury last summer, he had lifted three Irish Cup medals with today’s finalists — Linfield (2) and Crusaders — in addition to two league titles and a league cup with the Blues.
After finishing the 2005/06 season staving off relegation with his goals for Larne, the call from Linfield he thought would never come finally came.
Back in a cup semi-final, he tortured Lisburn Distillery in 2007 with a hat-trick before going on to score in normal time in a memorable final win over Dungannon Swifts, then scored again in the gripping penalty shoot-out.
Today, aged 29 and struggling to revive his career after a knee operation to repair worn and torn ligaments, the striker concedes he would have been happy just to have pulled on the Linfield jersey. But he left Windsor Park with two cup medals.
By 2009, Dickson was wearing the red and black of the new pretender to Linfield’s throne, Crusaders. By the end of his first season at Seaview, another Irish Cup medal was secured at the expense of Cliftonville — and with it the boyhood dream of scoring the only goal, with a memorable volley, in the end-of-season showcase finale.
Torn between two loves today, Dickson, who has just completed the season with Donegal Celtic, believes Crusaders can deny Linfield a 125th anniversary double if they approach the game as they did in 2009.
He said: “The manager (Stephen Baxter) told us to enjoy the cup final and not take on any pressure before it. We were the underdog and that’s the attitude we took. For many people, this cup final will be about Linfield winning the double and that Crusaders will only have a role to play. There shouldn’t be any pressure on Crusaders and that could favour them.”