Senior Irish League football returned with a bang in the first Irish Cup semi-final.
It took penalties to separate Ballymena United and Coleraine, with the Braidmen eventually coming out on top after a last gasp equaliser in normal time set up the spot-kicks.
Here are five things we could take from the game:
If there’s a reason Coleraine didn’t put the game to bed in those dominant opening 93 minutes, other than a couple of poor finishes, well then it was Jim Ervin.
The Ballymena captain came back into the heart of defence and put in an unsurprisingly timeless display. He set a marker down in the early exchanges with a well-time tackle to prevent Jamie Glackin getting in and it was that ability to be in the right place at the right time that stopped the Bannsiders scoring from open play.
It was most crucial midway through the second half when Glackin again looked to get in on goal, and would have done had it not been for another perfectly-timed tackle from the 35-year-old centre-back.
It’s certainly notable that the Ballymena equaliser at the very end of normal time came via a passage of play involving four substitutes. The first was right-wing-back Andy McGrory, who delivered a dangerous cross after having an immediate impact once he came on. Another player who could feel mightily aggrieved he didn’t start was midfielder Leroy Millar, who managed to hook the ball goalwards after the cross had been headed down by Aaron Burns. All that was left for 20-year-old substitute Kenny Kane to do was touch home from point blank range.
The subs had certainly improved their side and, with McGrory and fifth sub James Knowles also netting in the shoot-out, Jeffrey can take huge satisfaction from his changes.
One man who certainly hasn’t had a lockdown haircut is Jamie Glackin. If only a tricky winger should be allowed to have such long, flowing locks then Glackin proved he is worthy of them with an accomplished display until he was withdrawn through injury.
It was his fast-footed play, ghosting between two defenders on the right wing, that created an early opportunity although Josh Carson just couldn’t stretch to convert his dangerous cross. It was the start of a lively performance with his tireless running and skillful touches causing constant problems. There’s little doubt his 64th minute departure due to injury hampered the Bannsiders, particularly when they went looking for a goal in extra-time.
Is that perhaps a stretch? If we reserve the word for the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Stephen Carson, well then yes, it is. But there’s no doubt that Bradley has that attacking know-how that is absolutely invaluable. At 36, he’s still one of the most effective strikers in the Irish League and that doesn’t look like changing anytime soon, either.
His free-kick, an inch-perfect curler into the top corner, is just the start of the discussion. It’s his know-how that really shone through as he won a series of free-kicks, getting his body between the defender and the ball and made sure his team stayed at the right end of the pitch for the vast majority of normal time. The less said about his penalty, the better.
Coleraine had two goals disallowed by the linesman and would have wanted the opportunity to see the marginal calls decided by VAR, if we had it in the Irish League. The first, in particular, is a decision contested by Bannsiders fans as Steven O'Donnell's header was ruled out for an offside decision that looked as close a call as you can get. In saying that, it wouldn't have mattered if Coleraine had held on for the win their overall performance deserved.