On Saturday 28th January, in front of the TV cameras of the BBC and an eager crowd, Coleraine FC and Crusaders FC went head to head at the Ballymena Showgrounds. The prize, the Irn-Bru sponsored Irish League Cup.
I woke late on the day of the game and have to admit that it was an odd morning, you see it just didn't seem like other cup final days until we were at the game - I was looking forward to it but compared to the games against Linfield, Glentoran and Cliftonville of the past few years, the difference was that I felt relaxed about this game. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't confident of a result, how can you ever be, Coleraine are a good side and in football anything can happen, it just didn't feel like there was the same pressure of hope and fear as with other finals. I wonder if it could have also been because we were heading to the Ballymena Showgrounds and not Windsor Park? Whichever, everything just seemed to be a lot more chilled.
Playing Coleraine is never an easy task - as proven by both sides having drawn both times they've met in the league this season. Going by the pre-match build up online, I wasn't the only one thinking it'd be a tight game.
And so, as we contemplated the game ahead with a pint and packet of crisps in the Crusaders social club whilst watching some FA cup football on the big screen, we weren't putting forward predictions. We knew it was all down to whether the Crues would be the same side who gave Fulham a run for their money at Seaview earlier in the season or if the team were going to perform like we did against Donegal Celtic and lose to soft goals on the counter attack.
I spent most of the time on the Coach trip to the game following the Irish League chatter on Twitter and the majority of the folks except Crues and Ballymena fans were on the side of Coleraine. Even those apparently in the know from The Social Club N.I were favouring a Coleraine win, except for Chris Holt who had the game going to extra time and penalties.
When we got to the Showgrounds, we had a good half an hour to get settled in before kick off. As we approached the turnstiles Norngirl lent her scarf to one of Crusaders' most famous fans to have her photo taken by a press photographer. Most people know one another at the Crues, we're a tight knit bunch of supporters. We entered through the turnstiles after being politely searched by the security staff. The preparations were already in place. The cameras from the BBC were loitering overhead.
At pitch level, the balloons for the pre game build up were ready and waiting to be taken onto the pitch.
We made our way along the below pitch level walk way to the home stand where the Crues fans were being housed for this game.
Before we made our way into the stand there was just time to get some chips which cost £2.50 but were very nice chips and the choice of sauces was excellent... I went all out with a combo of Chilli sauce and Tomato sauce.
Food eaten and programme bought. It was time to head into the stand. I have to admit, I'd only ever been in the away stand before at the Ballymena Showgrounds, so this was a novel occasion. The Showgrounds doesn't usually host cup finals but this was a great placement for the League Cup final, a much better choice than the usual location - Linfield's Windsor Park. At the Showgrounds we were as close to half way between North Belfast and Coleraine as you can get. Not only that but at the Ballymena Showgrounds, both sets of fans can be close to the action and not stuck in the cramped seats in Windsor's South Stand or the very distant dead-zone of the North Stand. Neither giving a great view for the fans or helping create a good atmosphere. Here in Ballymena we had a great view as I know the Coleraine fans would have had too. The stadium didn't feel half empty as it does for a final at Windsor.
We picked some seats close to the half way line behind the dugouts. First of all came the introductions and the sides lined up.
From left to right; Colin Coates, Sean O'Neill, Jordan Owens, Gareth McKeown, Stuart Dallas, Paul Leeman, Chris Morrow, Aidan Watson, Stephen McBride, David McMaster, David Rainey and subs for the day; Michael Halliday, Ryan McCann, Declan Caddell, David Magowan and Matthew Snoddy.
The game was moments away and the balloons were released into the air.
As the balloons drifted past the floodlights it sunk in that it was about to begin, 90 minutes that could mean the difference between guaranteed success for the season or another near miss, between happiness or sadness, a piece of history to remember fondly or a day to forget. We knew we'd be OK win or lose as long as the team put in the effort we know they can and they tried their best. As anyone who has spent much time down at Seaview will know, the place has it's moments where it does feel like a family, or somewhat like being in the bar in the TV series Cheers - for we mightn't have had the 'out of the woodwork' support Coleraine had in attendance on the day... on that note here is the temporary stand that was put up to accommodate the extra demand:
... but win, lose or draw, if you try your best, you'll get our support through thick or thin (well except the odd grumpy moaner but you're always going to get a few of those at any football club).
As it turned out, the Crues side put out there by Stephen Baxter really did put in that effort we hoped they would.
The game started cagey but it wasn't long before the experience of the big occasion began to show and the guys in red and black were pushing forward and keeping the Coleraine players pinned back in their own half. Stuart Dallas went close with an attempted lob that went just wide. As always in cup finals you know every last chance really matters so when shortly after Chris Morrow got the ball at the edge of the box and hit a shot that bounced off the grass and hit the arm of the defender diving to clear the ball. A penalty wasn't given, at that point you start to wonder if it's your day. Well Chris Morrow had the answer on 34 minutes. A ball slipped through to him from Stuart Dallas had him clear through 1 on 1 with the keeper. He tucked it away into the back of the net and we lept from our seats.
After the goal, the half seemed to fly by. There were a few chances for either team but both keepers were equal to the chances made and bar the odd unexplainable throw in decision (both for and against us) there was nothing more of note from the half.
The whistle went and we were treated to the half time entertainment led by the day's announcer who I think is a local DJ? From where we were sitting he reminded us of John Culshaw playing the part of Gok Wan (It was the hairstyle).
The half time competition was to hit the crossbar from the edge of the D and the winners were to win themselves tickets to Northern Ireland Vs Norway. It was a good fun watching it, there was just one winner (which is odd given how many competitors Coleraine seemed to line up) and that winner was a wee boy supporting Crusaders who understanably was allowed to take the shot from a bit closer. His shot looped into the air and whacked the top of the bar. Shortly after the kid had managed it, for the Coleraine supporters, up stepped non-other than James from Derry of TV's Young Apprentice fame. The announcer had the wee Crues fan try to give him some advice for his shot but unfortunatley for James, the only advice was 'Hit the Crossbar', alas James didn't.
That all helped half time seem to pass very quickly and it wasn't long before Colin Coates led the Crues back onto the pitch and they were shortly followed by a Coleraine side who looked to be revved up for the 2nd half, it must have been some team talk from their manager.
The Bansiders put some good pressure on the Crues goal in the early stages of the half, a string of 3 or 4 corners in quick succession and the odd free kick and long shot, but Crusaders' back 4 held firm, as did Sean O'Neill when he needed to from another Johnny Black freekick. The Crues weathered the early pressure and from then on in, barring a rare shot from nothing, we never really looked like conceding.
Indeed it was the Coleraine goal that came under the most pressure, Jordan Owens hitting the post with one shot and having a tap in disallowed for offside.
1 goal was thankfully enough and after a few last minute long balls had been cleared and the final whistle blew, Crusaders FC had become 2011/12 Irn-Bru League Cup Champions.
In a break from tradition (by all accounts to accomodate the TV schedule), the lifting of the trophy and celebration came before the awarding of the runners up medals and interviews were happing all over the pitch.
It was a little confusing but it was a great moment to see Colin Coates lift, high up into the air, the clubs 3rd domestic trophy in 4 years. A mixture of paper confetti, Irn-Bru, and Champaign setting the scene of the celebration.
Amongst the party there was also the same courtousy awarded to the Coleraine players as you'd see at the end of an Ice Hockey match - as the stand of happy Crues fans joined the die hard Coleraine supporters who had stayed behind in clapping the opposition whilst they got their medals and headed off the pitch.
The cup win meant a lot to me, it meant delight at the time and it meant being ever so proud of our club from the Shore Road. It obviously means a lot to the players too as they spent a lot of time after the game celebrating with their families and the rest of the supporters.
Winning is what any football team in the world aims to do and on this day, the Crues picked up a piece of Silverwear that will sit produly in the trophy cabinate at Seaview for at least a year.
Something that will last longer than a year will be the fond memories of the day that each and everyone involved - players, officials and supporters, now have to add to those other cup wins already stored away.
And brimming with the great feeling that comes with a Cup win, the supporters coaches all headed back to Seaview to start the celebrations.
Before too long the players coach made it back to Seaview and the fans lined the street, cheering the team and the cup into the social club.
Though the final itself wasn't a classic for the neutral, the result was a brilliant one for everyone involved with Crusaders FC like me and it's another memory that I doubt I'll forget. Irn Bru did a great job as sponsors as did Coleraine in not only brining such a great support to the game but their sponsors even putting up that temporary stand for the game to accomodate more fans.
So before I finish this post, I'd just like to say a big thank you to everyone involved and a special thanks to our Manager Stephen Baxter and all the players who did us proud. I had a brilliant day and it has already made my season.