Glentoran are the Irish Cup winners. But what else did we learn in Friday night’s thrilling final at Windsor Park?
If there was one man Glentoran would have wanted a late chance to fall to, it was star striker Robbie McDaid. That’s not even the right phrasing either, as to say it fell to him would overlook that key striker’s instinct that ensured, when Ciaran O’Connor clipped a cross into the danger zone, McDaid was the one to react first and slide the finish into the bottom corner. It was his 21st goal of what was a shortened season and, with those numbers, it’s clear to see that the 23-year-old is growing into one of the top Irish League strikers. He was only 16 when he left Glenavon for Leeds United and it was clear he had a world of potential. Since moving back home and arriving at Glentoran three years ago, his goal tally per season has gone up and up. Who'd bet against that trajectory continuing? The sky’s the limit.
It’s a compliment to Ballymena United that a Glentoron centre-back was named man of the match. The former Derry City star arrived at the club last summer as has quickly become a leading figure at the centre of defence. He continued his new partnership with former Finn Harps captain Keith Cowan in the decider and looked as assured as ever, even up against towering striker Adam Lecky. If the trophy-laden era promised by manager Muck McDermott materialises, then 23-year-old McClean could play a key role in the whole thing.
In January, Glentoran brought in Rory Donnelly in a sensational switch from Cliftonville, Keith Cowan from Finn Harps, Andrew Mitchell and Caolan Marron in a double deal from Glenavon and even tabled record bids for Joe Gormley and Adam Lecky. It was all with a view to sealing European competition this summer and the £200k+ financial boost that comes along with it. Owner Ali Pour, who was at Windsor Park for the decider, recognised that if they could manage it this season, it would fast-forward the whole project and lift the club a whole lot closer to the summit. It's now a case of job done and a higher altitude has been hit.
What did they do wrong? This time last year, all looked rosy on the Braid as United were fresh from securing a second place finish in the Danske Bank Premiership and backing it up by progressing a round in European competition for the very first time. Fast forward 12 months and they’ve finished 10th in the league and lost two cup finals at Windsor Park. Cast your mind back to the County Antrim Shield final in February, when Cliftonville scored in the 96th and 97th minute to overturn United’s lead and snatch the trophy from their grasp in the cruellest fashion. As time ticked on in the Irish Cup decider, you wondered if that hurt would be repaid. But no, there was Robbie McDaid, pouring salt into their open wounds. The 31-year wait for another Irish Cup win goes on. Who can blame David Jeffrey for wondering why he let himself get back into management?
If there’s a reason to be hopeful for the future though, it’s that United’s performance in the final was much more akin to their efforts in the 18/19 campaign, when they were runners-up to Linfield in the league. The battle, the flying wing-backs, the lively front two – it was all back in spades. As if we would ever doubt that a David Jeffrey team would just sink without trace. No, there’s more about Ballymena than that and their performance would indicate there’s a better campaign just around the corner.