Cliftonville 1 Linfield 1 (Linfield win 2-1 on penalties)
Young goalkeeper David Walsh was the hero as Linfield snatched victory from the jaws of defeat to overcome Cliftonville and reach the County Antrim Shield final.
Trailing to a Ryan Curran penalty, the Blues had an injury-time leveller ruled out before squeezing in a last-gasp Kyle McClean strike to take the tie straight to a penalty shootout – where Walsh took the acclaim amid at times farcical scenes.
It all started plainly enough. Curran and Chris Shields each dispatched their kicks before home skipper Chris Curran stepped up to put the Reds 2-1 up. Or so they thought.
Following lengthy appeals from the visitors, who argued that Curran had touched the ball with both feet, the strike was eventually ruled out by referee Evan Boyce and his officiating team to hand the Blues an advantage that was immediately squandered when Jordan Stewart blazed over.
Unfortunately for the hosts, that was as good as it got for them with three misses in a row ending their hopes of reaching a decider they appeared to have one foot in just minutes earlier.
Chris Gallagher stroked wide and, after Martin Donnelly had made it 2-1, Levi Ives – who slipped while executing his shot – was denied by Walsh.
Ahmed Salam, apparently confused by events that had just unfolded, clarified with the referee that a successful strike would seal victory for his team – only for Luke McNicholas to save.
Cliftonville wasted that reprieve, however, when Paul O’Neill saw his tame attempt kept out by Walsh to send the visitors through to a New Year showdown with holders Larne.
Long lines of Cliftonville fans queuing at the turnstiles forced a 15-minute delay to kick-off and, once the action eventually got under way, it wasn’t long before the hosts threatened; Ryan Curran heading over the top from Ives’ corner.
The Blues almost took the lead in odd circumstances soon afterwards when, having been afforded plenty of room outside the box, Salam took aim with a shot that looked to be drifting harmlessly wide only to kiss the outside of the post on its way past.
Stewart went close with an eye-catching attempt that forced McNicholas into some 23rd minute acrobatics before an accidental touch from Blues midfielder Shields set Jamie McDonagh scampering in behind but, with team-mates screaming for a delivery in the middle, he opted for an early shot which didn’t trouble Walsh.
The Reds were rewarded for a bright start to the second-half when McClean’s foul on Kris Lowe earned a penalty which Ryan Curran converted.
That looked like being enough to earn Paddy McLaughlin’s side a place in the final, especially when Christy Manzinga saw a 92nd minute header ruled out for offside.
Any notion of that setback deflating Linfield was blown away shortly after when they forced another ball into the box and, with various limbs desperately thrashing at possession, McClean kept his cool to stroke into the bottom corner and take the contest to a shoot-out that will live long in the memories of all associated with both clubs.
CLIFTONVILLE: McNicholas, Ives, C Curran, R Curran, McDonagh (McDermott 67), Lowe, Addis, Gormley, Turner, Gallagher, Kearns (O’Neill 81).
Unused subs: Dunne, Harney, Foster, Casey, Coates.
LINFIELD: Walsh, Roscoe-Byrne (McClean 59), Larkin, Shields, Callacher, Stewart, M Clarke, Donnelly, Salam, A Clarke (Fallon 74), Archer (Manzinga 74).
Unused subs: Johns, Carroll, Montgomery, Marshall.
Referee: Evan Boyce (Ballygowan)
Man of the match: Levi Ives
Match rating: 7/10