Cliftonville's winning run ends in disgrace
Cliftonville 1 Coleraine 2 (after extra time): There were shocking scenes at Solitude last night when a last-gasp extra time winner from Coleraine’s Johnny Black sparked a pitch invasion from a handful of youths in the home end.
The goalscorer appeared to be on the receiving end of an assault from a so-called Cliftonville ‘fan’ who was soon cornered by stewards as the remainder of a near capacity crowd made clear their anger at the attack on the player.
Reds fans, who saw their side’s record winning run of 14 matches come to an end, will soon be waving goodbye to rising star Rory Donnelly.
Donnelly is bound for bigger and better things — the English Premier League, no less.
The Reds last night accepted a bid from Swansea for the talented 19-year-old, who has taken the Irish League by storm since being handed his chance by manager Tommy Breslin at the start of the season.
Donnelly, who progressed through the Solitude club’s Football Development Centre and lives beside the north Belfast ground, will soon be setting up home in Wales, where he will come under the wing of fellow Ulsterman Brendan Rodgers.
Uwe Rosler’s Brentford had also tabled an offer but that was rebuffed by Cliftonville, who have now granted the Swans permission to open talks with the player.
“The financial package is a good one for Cliftonville Football Club and we always said that, were such an offer to come in, we would not stand in Rory’s way,” said Reds chairman Gerard Lawlor.
“Bonuses and add-ons have been factored in depending on the progress he makes with Swansea and we have now granted their request to speak to him.
“He has been magnificent for us all season and is a great kid who deserves this chance.
“He has always kept his feet on the ground and done well for the team despite all of the speculation that has surrounded him in recent weeks, which is a testament to his fantastic attitude.”
Donnelly, who has bagged 17 goals — including three hat-tricks — for the Reds this season is now likely to feature for the final time when Cliftonville tackle Coleraine again on New Year’s Eve.
As for last night’s match, ahead through an unfortunate own goal from home keeper John Connolly, Coleraine were pegged back when Martin Donnelly slammed home a 71st minute penalty ahead of Black’s dramatic late intervention just two minutes from the end of 30 added minutes.
Home boss Breslin, whose weekend gamble to rest some of his players paid off in the victory over Lisburn Distillery, restored Martin Donnelly and former Bannsiders midfielder Barry Johnston to the starting line-up.
Coleraine, meanwhile, made three amendments to the panel that saw off Dungannon Swifts on Saturday.
Coleraine’s travelling band of supporters sold out their entire allocation, while tickets were also scarce in the home end on a night of high expectations all round.
Just as high were the winds swirling around north Belfast, which both bosses hoped would not derail their sides’ bids to reach the New Year showpiece.
The Bannsiders pulled ahead on 10 minutes and, predictably, the elements played their part.
Gareth Tommons latched onto a loose ball 25 yards from goal and sent in a shot which, gripped by the wind, smacked against the post before ricocheting off Connolly and into the back of the net.
On 71 minutes Barry Holland thundered an effort goalward and, though it appeared to have crashed back off the woodwork, assistant referee Tom Fairfield spotted a handball by Black and a penalty was awarded.
To further heighten the drama, Martin Donnelly’s spot-kick was held up for almost a minute as the wind time and again blew the ball off its mark before he finally stepped up to rifle home.
And so to extra time and, with the clock ticking towards penalties, Black intervened with a surging run from deep and accurate finish to spark delirium in the away stand and send Oran Kearney’s battlers through to a final with Stephen Baxter’s Crusaders.
But the evening finished on a bitter note with Black seemingly the victim of a strike to the face during the pitch invasion.
CLIFTONVILLE: Connolly, Johnston, Holland, Donaghy, McMullan, C Scannell, M Donnelly, Smyth, R Donnelly, Catney, McVeigh. Subs: Caldwell (for McMullan, 90 mins), Garrett (for Johnston, 62 mins), Gormley (for Scannell, 82 mins), Bradley, Stuart.
COLERAINE: Doherty, Beverland, Ogilby, Lowry, Allen, Knight, McIlmoyle, Canning, Jennings, Tommons, Black. Subs: Cullen, McNulty, McCauley (for Jennings, 61 mins), Watt, Clarke.
REFEREE: Arnold Hunter (Maguiresbridge).