Ballymena United 1 Crusaders 2
As he fought back tears at his post match press conference, David Jeffrey called it the cruellest moment of his managerial career and nothing more needed to be said.
For the majority of this Irish Cup final, Crusaders were toothless, smothered and second best, but they scored goals at the end of normal time and extra time to go home with the trophy.
There was even the horrible irony of former Ballymena United striker Johnny McMurray thrusting a dagger in their heart and the fact that Jeffrey was the best man at Crues goalkeeper Jonny Tuffey’s wedding.
The romance of the Cup was alive for so long until Crusaders’ squad depth snatched glory from the jaws of defeat.
The Crues walk away with the Irish Cup, European football and its financial windfall.
United don’t even have the Euro play-offs as an opportunity to channel their deep frustration.
In one of his interviews in the run up to the final, Crues boss Stephen Baxter remarked: ‘May the best team win’. You can argue whether or not that happened, but his players pulled it out of the fire when it looked lost.
Andy McGrory, who won the trophy twice with Glenavon, was the only member of the United squad who had lifted this prize but, despite Crusaders’ squad boasting greater experience of finals, it was their players who looked nervous and uncomfortable with the tag of favourites.
United were gifted their opener by a disastrous attempt at a clearance from Robbie Weir and at that moment their supporters must have started to believe this could be their day.
Tuffey had to make a brilliant save just before the corner to deny the marauding Leroy Millar as the Sky Blues made a fast start.
Jordan Williamson dealt comfortably with Ben Kennedy’s free kick and Ross Redman produced an important block to deflect Paul Heatley’s effort over the woodwork.
Billy Joe Burns’ weak back pass allowed David Parkhouse to sneak in as Tuffey went to ground, but the defender managed to tidy up and spare his own blushes.
It was a moment that summed up Crusaders’ lacklustre performance.
They were being pulled apart by Millar’s forward bursts and, after a half time inquest, Baxter had to make changes or face defeat.
Josh Robinson replaced Weir and went to centre back, allowing Burns to move to right back and Jordan Forsythe to venture further up the pitch.
McGrory’s free kick which whistled past the post was another scare for the Crues and Ryan Waide wasted a great chance to double his side’s lead with what proved to be a costly miss.
Williamson palmed away Heatley’s effort and United felt they had a decent penalty shout when Burns tackled substitute Paul McElroy.
The challenge was possibly just outside the box and, while a free kick wasn’t awarded, Burns had good reason to breathe a huge sigh of relief. There was obviously some doubt in referee Tony Clarke’s mind as the defender got a slight touch on the ball.
Just as the Sky Blues were set to party like it’s 1989, in stoppage time Tuffey touched on Heatley’s delicious corner and Josh Robinson hooked the ball across the line at the back post.
A lifeline for Crusaders, heartbreak for United. That equaliser turned the tide.
There was even bigger drama to come with McMurray’s magical finish sparking wild celebrations in the red and black corner.
The Crues had plenty of attacking flair in Heatley, Adam Lecky, Ross Clarke and Kennedy, but they were smothered by their hard working opponents with Josh Kelly an impressive shield.
United players were immense with Millar, in what’s expected to be his final game before departure to Larne, leading the charge.
Their preparation for the decider was delayed by Glentoran’s arbitration case, but they still produced a performance full of hunger and character.
They gave their all and can’t be criticised. They were simply stung in the most cruel fashion.
Crusaders could smell blood in extra time, but United still got up off the floor and kept fighting.
It took one final swing from McMurray to finish them off right at the death.
The striker, along with Robinson, lost last year’s final with Larne. This time they wrote the script.
For Crues keeper Tuffey, this was redemption; the victory and assist for the equaliser exorcises the demons of last season’s semi-final shoot-out horror.
And Jordan Owens, who came on in the 81st minute, put the United defence in panic mode.
Was there pride in defeat for United? It doesn’t matter. If you don’t win a cup final, you are simply distraught and when several Ballymena players collapsed on the pitch at the final whistle, their heartbreak was in stark contrast to Crusaders’ euphoria.
Ross Redman, the oldest member of the Sky Blues team, produced an heroic performance, but will now wonder if he will ever again come close to Irish Cup success.
For United, 33 years of Irish Cup pain goes on, but their day will come and when it does it’s memories like this one which will ultimately make that long awaited triumph even more special.
Jeffrey, winner of 32 trophies, is now sick of losing finals but, unlike other clubs, his side have been knocking on the door. They will regroup and go again with even more desire to net a big prize.
It was not just a big day for the players.
Referee Clarke was handed his first Irish Cup final and he showed why he deserved it with an assured performance.
It will be no consolation to the Braidmen, but it was an entertaining contest that was on a knife edge until the final few seconds.
Jeffrey was within a whisker of his sweetest managerial moments. By the finish, it was his worst nightmare.
Sometimes this game doesn’t give you what you deserve.
It can give you some of the best and worst moments of your life. It’s why we love football and sometimes hate it.
BALLYMENA UNITED: Williamson, Redman, Kelly (Henderson, 82 mins), Waide (Place, 91 mins), McCullough, Barr (McElroy, 71 mins), McGrory, Parkhouse (Kane, 77 mins), Keeley (Loughran, 77 mins), Millar, Graham. Unused subs: Johnston, Smith.
CRUSADERS: Tuffey, Burns (Doyle, 89 mins), Weir (Robinson, 46 mins), Lowry (Owens, 81 mins), Kennedy, Lecky (Caddell, 68 mins), Forsythe, O’Rourke, Larmour (Wilson, 110 mins), Heatley, Clarke (McMurray, 68 mins). Unused subs: Hegarty.
Referee: Tony Clarke (Newtownabbey).
Man of the match: Leroy Millar
Match rating: 7/10.