Glentoran 2 Glenavon 0
Glentoran are only one game away from ending the season in a blaze of glory.
Following a fractured, trophy-less, campaign – they finished a whopping 12 points adrift of champions Linfield in the Danske Bank Premiership table – the east-Belfast men hit a new low, having to face the embarrassment of being tossed out of the Irish Cup after fielding an ineligible player, Joe Crowe, in the quarter-final win over Newry City.
They did their level best to be reinstated, taking their appeal to an independent arbitration after their case was dismissed by the IFA.
After all the controversy, mud-slinging and futile appeals, the Glens are now on the verge a financial jackpot and booking their place in next season’s Europa Conference League, which would herald a cash injection of at least £200,000, after snuffing out the challenge of Glenavon in last night’s play-off semi-final clash at the BetMcLean Oval.
Goals from strike duo Conor McMenamin and Jay Donnelly helped lift the gloom that has hovered around Mersey Street since the end of the league season. Mick McDermott’s boys will now face Larne, who defeated Coleraine 2-0 in the other semi-final tie, in Friday night’s winner-takes-all cash bonanza on their home patch.
It was a season that at one stage promised so much, but delivered so little for the Glens, but at least they now have a chance to give their fans something to cheer and also salvage some much-needed pride.
It was the Glens who were first out of the blocks with McMenamin darting down the left before pulling the ball back for Seanan Clucas, whose pile-driver brought a wonderful response from Glenavon’s 17-year-old goalkeeper Josh Clarke.
The Lurgan Blues quickly hit back. Conor McCloskey’s quickly taken throw in caught the Glens defence napping, but Matthew Fitzpatrick could only shoot tamely into the gloves of Aaron McCarey.
Then, on 17 minutes, the home team almost shot themselves in the foot.
Darren Cole’s attempted back pass to McCarey fell woefully short, presenting a fantastic opportunity to Fitzpatrick, but the big shot-stopper got down smartly to spare his defender’s blushes.
The home fans were on the feet claiming a penalty just after the half hour when McMenamin’s shot ricocheted off Glenavon defender Calum Birney, but referee Lee Tavinder insisted the ball struck his thigh and not his arm.
Seconds later it was the Glenavon faithful who were appealing for a spot kick when Danny Wallace went down under a challenge from Rhys Marshall, but again the Dungannon official wasn’t impressed.
But it was Gary Hamilton’s boys, underdogs having finished seventh in the league compared to the Glens in third, who began to ask the questions as the half progressed.
Peter Campbell tried his luck with a stinging low drive from distance that had McCarey at full stretch before Fitzpatrick hoofed one just inches over the top.
Glentoran forged ahead on 48 minutes.
Jay Donnelly’s delicious pass sent McMenamin free and, as Clarke quickly came off his line, the striker delicately lofted the ball into the empty net – an exquisite finish.
It really should have been two just before the hour.
McMenamin whipped in an inviting corner from the right which was met by Jay Donnelly, but his header fizzed inches wide.
The Glens went looking for a killer second, skipper Marcus Kane was just out of luck with a a stinging low drive the flashed wide before Paddy McClean struck an audacious 45-yard effort that Clarke was relieved to see drift wide.
McDermott’s boys threatened again on 68 minutes with the Donnelly/McMenamin double act again ripping the visiting defence to shreds, but this time Clarke got down to smother the former Cliftonville man’s shot.
The killer second goal did arrive on 72 minutes.
This time it was McMenamin who returned the favour, producing a wonderful cross from Donnelly to get up above everyone else to power home with the flick of his head.
GLENTORAN: McCarey, Kane, Burns, Marshall, J Donnelly, McClean, Clucas (Powers 88), McMenamin, Cushnie (R Donnelly 66), Plum (Crowe 72), Cole. Unused subs: McCartan, O’Connor, Jenkins, Glendinning.
GLENAVON: Clarke, Birney, Haughey (O’Mahony 88), O’Connor (J Doyle 73), Campbell, Snoddy (Garrett 81), McCloskey, Fitzpatrick, Wallace, Singleton, Ward. Unused subs: A Doyle, Scannell, Doran, Hamilton.
REFEREE: Lee Tavinder.
Man of the match: Conor McMenamin
Match rating: 6/10.