Glentoran 2 Larne 4 (AET)
Ronan Hale wrote his name into Larne’s history books as he scored four goals as the Invermen produced a stunning comeback at the BetMcLean Oval.
Goals early in each half, from Conor McMenamin and Jay Donnelly, had Glentoran firmly in control only for Patrick McClean’s sending off 17 minutes from time to change everything.
Hale scored his first two goals from the spot before the end of the 90 minutes and bagged a further brace in extra-time to stun Mick McDermott’s men.
It was enough to book Larne’s place in the Europa Conference League for the second successive summer as Tiernan Lynch’s men celebrated with 650 travelling fans at the end of the night.
The Glens started the game like a team clearly told to begin on the front foot and they took the game to Larne from the off.
Less than four minutes were on the clock when McMenamin got a sight of the touchline on the left flank, his low cross found Shay McCartan at the back post but he slipped at the wrong moment and Ben Doherty blocked the effort.
The home side didn’t have long to wait for the game’s opener, however. This time the danger came down the right flank through Rory Donnelly.
His initial cross was blocked by defender Cian Bolger, however the ball came back to the former Cliftonville man and this time he lofted the ball to the back post, where McMenamin rose highest to nod home.
Larne’s cause wasn’t helped when Lee Bonis had to helped off the field to be replaced by Davy McDaid.
However, as the half wore on Larne began to grow into the game and they came within a whisker of levelling the score on 27 minutes.
Mark Randall lofted a pass into the box, which caused confusion between defender Darren Cole and goalkeeper Aaron McCarey. This allowed sub McDaid to nip in but he could only poke a low effort inches the wrong side of the post.
A minute later the former Derry City man was again in the thick of the action. Andy Scott nodded the ball through to give the striker a clear run on goal and with McCarey rushing from his line, the goalkeeper appeared to wipe out McDaid just outside the box.
Referee Raymond Crangle waved away the protests, much to the bemusement of the visitors.
Despite Larne boss Lynch introducing experienced midfield pair John Herron and club captain Jeff Hughes from the bench at half-time it was Glentoran who once again started the brighter of the two sides.
There were barely 30 seconds on the clock in the second period when Bobby Burns volleyed a cross in from the left.
Jay Donnelly did well to peel off Cian Bolger but his header came crashing off the crossbar from 12 yards out.
A bit like the first half, this was a warning Larne were unable to heed.
Shay McCartan picked up the ball just inside the Larne half and played a clever through ball behind the Larne centre halves, which Donnelly ran on to and slotted across Ferguson into the bottom left corner.
The celebrations which followed on the pitch and on the terraces suggested the home side knew it was a big moment in their quest to secure European football.
Similar to the pattern of the first half, Larne began to find their feet and almost got a route back into the match on the hour mark.
They did well to keep alive around the Glentoran box from a series of corners and Mark Randall flicked on for Kofi Balmer to strike the post with McCarey beaten.
There was new life breathed into the game 17 minutes from time. McDaid was pulled back by McClean inside the box.
Crangle pointed to the spot and gave McClean his marching orders. After a debate between the visitors, Hale stepped up but shot straight at McCarey, only to win the race for the rebound to poke home.
The comeback was complete nine minutes later when Larne brought the game level, once more from the spot.
This time McCarey was adjudged to have clumsily brought down Hale with the ball in the air. The substitute dusted himself down to fire into the bottom left corner.
With the momentum with them, Larne had a golden chance to win it three minutes into stoppage time when John Herron couldn’t steer his header past McCarey from six yards out.
With this the game ticked into extra-time and once more Herron came within a whisker of giving Larne the lead.
Dean Jarvis crossed from the left and this time Herron could only steer his header off the crossbar.
A minute later Larne would go even closer when Hale shot from 20 yards which came off both posts before being cleared to safety.
Larne weren’t to be denied and took the lead for the first time on the night when Hale completed his treble nine minutes into extra-time.
Drifting in from the left he flashed the ball all the way across the face of goal before nestling into the bottom right corner. A cross or shot? Hale wasn’t worrying as he set off to celebrate.
A remarkable game had one more incredible twist as Larne wrapped up victory in the final minute of extra-time. With goalkeeper McCarey in the Larne half, Hale won a tackle in his own half and turned and shot, with the ball ending up trickling into the Glentoran net from close to 100 yards out.
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