Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Coleraine birthday boy Gareth McConaghie enjoyed perfect gift but Irish Cup final's National Anthem row has left a bitter taste

By Steven Beacom

Gareth McConaghie was a player with Coleraine & District League side Dervock two years ago.

On Saturday he was the man of the match in an Irish Cup final as Coleraine beat Cliftonville 3-1 to claim their first major trophy since 2003.

Like the Bannsiders, McConaghie has come a long way. The centre-back was immense at Windsor Park. For a period in the second half when Cliftonville were pressing he was a magnet for the ball, clearing danger with his feet and head.

All this on his 30th birthday. What a way to celebrate!

A year before, Coleraine were like rabbits in the headlights as they lost 3-0 to Linfield in the Irish Cup final. Honest about his own performances, McConaghie would admit he was a bunny in that battle. Twelve months on the big man was a bear.

He epitomised the Coleraine spirit that told you this time around they weren't going to suffer the disappointment of the 2017 decider or the despair of the weekend before when Crusaders pipped them to the title following a phenomenal race.

With influential captain Stephen O'Donnell alongside him, McConaghie stood firm against Cliftonville's fearsome attacking trio of Joe Gormley and Rory and Jay Donnelly.

Only once, early in the second half, did the Reds break down Coleraine's resistance when the elder of the Donnelly brothers found the net to equalise Darren McCauley's wonder strike.

At that stage Cliftonville had the momentum but, crucially, Coleraine had McConaghie in inspirational mood.

At the other end they had substitute Aaron Burns - an Irish Cup winner with Linfield a year ago - racing clear to finish in style and restore Coleraine's lead before Eoin Bradley's magic moment in injury time which led to eye-catching scenes of euphoria for manager Oran Kearney, his staff and the buoyant Bannsiders fans.

It may have taken a while for the eagerly awaited encounter to come to life but it turned into a crackerjack of a contest in the end.

Post-match Kearney stated that the first big trophy in his reign could take the club to the next level. With characters such as McConaghie around they have every chance.

Pre-match much was made of the Irish FA Board's decision to play God Save The Queen ahead of kick-off despite Cliftonville requesting them not to do so.

On the day Reds fans roared their disapproval as the anthem was blasted out over the tannoy system while Barry Gray and his players bowed their heads in silent protest.

Some felt the actions of the Cliftonville supporters and team were justified.

Others believed they were disrespectful.

Whatever direction the IFA Board opted to go on this emotive issue they were going to face criticism. What brought some people together on both sides of the argument at the Cup final, however, was surprise that IFA President David Martin or IFA Chief Executive Patrick Nelson did not feel the need to speak publicly about the Board's decision rather than issuing a short statement which has become the governing body's calling card.

Martin and Nelson really ought to be fronting up on issues like this. Leaders lead. They don't go missing when the going gets tough.

What happens next will be interesting with the IFA promising to review the situation and some Cliftonville supporters wanting their chairman Gerard Lawlor to resign from the Board.

Reds boss Gray declined to comment on it all. Instead, with emotion in his voice, he talked about the pain of losing the final. Believing they would become the first Cliftonville side to win the Irish Cup since 1979, this defeat hurt him and his team.

It would have been exactly the same had the anthem not been played.

After the most talked about Irish Cup final for years - for various reasons - they must dust themselves down for this week's Europa League play-offs.

Coleraine can continue the party that started on Saturday.

Belfast Telegraph

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