Shankill hit spot in thriller as they line up more glory
Lower Shankill 2- 2 Tullymore Swifts 2, Lower Shankill win 7-5 on pens
The post-match celebrations in the home dressing room said it all. Lower Shankill may not have won the Junior Cup on Saturday, but the very nature of this victory that puts them into the semi-final draw hints this set of players could well be on the cusp of something special.
From looking comfortable at 1-0 up to coming from behind in normal time and then again in extra time, before ultimately clinching the win on penalties, the Amateur League Division 2C men showed why they continue to impress, both in this competition and in the Clarence Cup, where they have reached the quarter-finals.
Lower Shankill are a club with a rich and well-renowned history in Churches League football, but this competition in particular, with over 200 clubs across Northern Ireland competing from the outset, gives them the biggest platform of all to showcase their ability. And their manager, Stephen Paul (pictured) feels it is only a matter of time before they have something to place in the trophy cabinet.
"I have been at this club for 24 years now, and we have always won trophies… this current group are going to push on and win some of their own. It would be great if they could do it this year," he said.
"The priority was always the league, but after losing last weekend, I would really like to see us give the cups a real go.
"I was so pleased with the players' attitude today - they deserve a lot of credit for the way they kept fighting back."
Certainly, it was the home side who showed all the early promise. Visiting keeper Patrick Crawford showed spectators a glimpse of his exceptional ability by tipping a powerful 18th minute Scott Campbell free kick onto the bar, and although Jonny Ward headed in from the rebound, referee Brian Gallagher ruled him offside.
Following a string of wasted chances, the hosts eventually got the breakthrough strike their early pressure warranted in the 34th minute; the influential Ward cutting in from the left to find the bottom right hand corner with a neat finish.
They could even have been two to the good, approaching half time, with Scott Campbell finding Craig McCann with a through ball so incisive that it even appeared to take the latter by surprise as he ballooned a half-volley well over.
Crawford started the second half much like the first, getting down to tip away a drilled effort from Campbell, and then was quickly out to smother a close-range attempt from Burns.
Tullymore hearts were almost in mouths as Ward beat the offside trap and Crawford too this time, only to be denied by Joseph Harbinson, who was on the goal-line to clear the danger.
Then, on the hour mark, came the first of two stunning Tullymore goals in as many stunning minutes.
The first arrived from the boot of Hetherington, a superb strike to leave sprawling Lower Shankill keeper Gary Fluke helpless.
And if that goal left all watching breathless, the next was even sweeter, with Damien Fegan guiding an unstoppable 25-yard free kick in off the base of the left hand post to leave their hosts looking every bit as dazed as boxing champ Carl Frampton's beaten opponent Chris Avalos in the city just a few hours later.
This was a genuine test of character for Lower Shankill, and they initially responded with a sustained period of pressure, with Crawford yet again doing remarkably well to save from David Bright at a range of a couple of yards.
In the 77th minute, their endeavours were rewarded as a well-placed Ward stabbed home at the back post from a Campbell corner to take the game into extra time.
This followed a similar pattern to the second half, with Tullymore's Fegan slotting in from a Matthew McCafferty corner in the first ten minutes, and Burns producing a timely and accurate equaliser with just seconds on the clock.
And so, it was to penalties. Fluke grabbed the opportunity to shine by both hands, saving from Brendan Knox and Sean McCarthy, to leave Fegan and David Neeson Tullymore's only players to net from the spot. Gary Anderson was the only Lower Shankill man to have his attempt saved, in a shootout that saw team-mates Darren McCullough, McCann, Ward and Thomas Morrison all tuck their penalties away, sealing a memorable victory.
Tullymore boss Neil Meenan later reflected on that his side, who currently lie bottom of the Belfast & District League Premier Division, had raised their game on the day, proving more than worthy of their quarter-final place.
"I am so proud of the boys," he said. "I felt Lower Shankill shaded the first half, but we matched them for the rest of the game - it was just a shame someone had to lose.
"We wish them well for the rest of the tournament."