Welders edge out Albert Foundry on penalties in tight Steel Cup final
Relieved Harland & Wolff Welders manager Gary Smyth admitted to be being "totally drained" after a nail-biting Steel & Sons Cup final victory over Albert Foundry which was taken all the way to penalties.
The Championship One side may have been strong favourites to get their names on the trophy, but that wasn't how matters transpired on the pitch, with their spirited Amateur League Premier Division opponents showing the type of fight and desire that got them to the Christmas morning in the first place.
"I have to hold my hands up and say we were lucky to get to extra time," stated the Welders boss afterwards. "We were in control for 65 minutes, but by the end, the boys looked scared of defeat.
"Credit to Foundry, they got the ball out wide so quickly, and I thought their fitness levels were tremendous. I'm just glad we won it in the end... it hasn't even really sunk in yet."
Michael Dougherty was given an early test in the 10th minute, when Paul Young was sent clear, but the Welders keeper was quick off his line to smother the danger.
Shortly after this, the east Belfast men almost enjoyed a moment of good fortune, as Michael McLellan's miss-hit shot was deflected just past the post by team-mate David Rainey.
In the 20th minute, McLellan did better with a free kick from near the corner of the 18-yard box - it was on target, but didn't have the necessary power to trouble Stephen Cairnduff in the Foundry goal.
Foundry, meanwhile, were giving an impressive account of themselves, and came close to breaking the deadlock on several occasions.
An Aaron Harris free kick was knocked on by Darren McComb to Jamie Mitchell, who in turn flicked it onto the crossbar - only to be ruled offside.
The ball then fell to McComb, who aimed a half-volley towards the top right corner and only missed his intended target by a matter of inches. On the half-hour mark, Ryan Deans fed the ball through to Scott Davidson, who shot low, but Cairnduff reacted well to save with his feet. Dan McMurray headed over from the resultant Davidson corner.
The Welders took the lead three minutes later, with McLellan drilling into the bottom right hand corner for his 26th goal of the season.
Foundry could consider themselves fortunate not to have gone even further behind at the start of the second half, when only a fantastic reflex save from Cairnduff kept out a Rainey header, while a McLellan header from a Deans cross was too tame.
There was no let-up from the side in yellow as they continued to push for a second. Josh Cahoon was left kicking himself in the 62nd minute, as he got his angles all wrong from inside the area, shooting wide of the near post when he should have opted for the other side of the keeper.
Then, with 17 minutes left of normal time, came a moment of sheer brilliance. Ian West delivered an inviting cross for McComb, who sent a delightful lob over the arching Dougherty to draw the sides level.
The goal gave Foundry a renewed vigour, and Aaron Harris was unlucky to see his shot tipped past the post in the 79th minute.
At the opposite end, in a period of frantic activity, McLellan had a close-range effort saved, Davidson miss-hit a shot, and Dougan turned a strike over the bar.
Substitute Marcus Beattie had a golden opportunity to win the game for Foundry in the 80th minute, when, from a Young cross and with the goal at his mercy, his header was wildly off-target.
They also could have wrapped up a victory in injury time, but the Welders defence threw bodies in the way to ensure both of West's shots were deflected out of play.
Extra time was tense, with Foundry's best chance a Beattie effort well saved by Dougherty and Welders' coming from a McLellan shot heading for the top corner but expertly tipped to safety by Cairnduff.
And so it was onto penalties, and it was heartbreak for Foundry, who only had success with goal-scorer McComb, with Young and Bill Maxwell both rattling the woodwork. The Welders, on the other hand, were spot-on, with Dougan, Davidson, McLellan, and Middleton all converting.
Albert Foundry manager Colin McIlwaine said: "I'm obviously gutted. It is one of the most sickening feelings to come this far and lose on penalties.
"But I wouldn't swap the experience of playing in a Steel Cup final for anything in the world. We'll take a few days to lick our wounds, hopefully the boys can enjoy their Christmas with their families, then we'll regroup and kick on with the rest of the season."
Albert Foundry: Cairnduff, Corry, Burns, Moore, McAlinden (McCord, 54 mins), Maxwell, Harris, McComb, West, Mitchell (Beattie, 69 mins), Young. Subs not used: Sloan, Acheson, Martin.
H&W Welders: Dougherty, Dickson, Spence, McMurray, Armstrong, Davidson, Deans (Middleton, 72 mins), Harris (Devine, 98 mins), McLellan, Rainey (Dougan, 78 mins), Cahoon. Subs not used: McMillan, Bowers.
Referee: Steven Taylor (Belfast)
Man of the match: Stephen Cairnduff (Albert Foundry)