If ever one match could perfectly encapsulate Ballymena United’s season, it had to be Saturday’s WASP Solutions League Cup final.
Madcap defending, stirring comebacks, stunning goals but with the all-too-familiar, self-imposed kick in the teeth ensuring that disappointment was the over-riding emotion.
First things first - quite simply, what a game. Forget your turgid, stuff, play-not-to-lose-rather-than-to-win cup deciders, this one will live long in the memory, even when the disappointment eventually begins to fade.
It was s day laced with drama, even from before a ball was kicked.
Normally, when I receive a teamsheet, I take a cursory glance down the starting XI before attempting to digest any changes or trying to work out formations but on Saturday, my eyes remained locked on the name of Dwayne Nelson at the top of the list.
It was a mega call on Glenn Ferguson’s part to recall the keeper, who had been jettisoned since the 7-0 mauling at Solitude in November.
With just 55 seconds played, Nelson must have felt like he had never been away as he once again found himself staring into the whites of Joe Gormley’s eyes. The rest, as most Irish League goalkeepers in that scenario would testify, was largely inevitable.
Thankfully, fears of another Solitude-style meltdown after that catastrophic opening proved unfounded as United gradually played their way into the game.
There was no shortage of industry - Gary Thompson’s performance was particularly eye-catching at that stage - but too often there was a split-second delay in releasing a killer pass which saw attacks peter out, while United lacked penetration in the final third of the pitch.
Cliftonville’s second goal came at an awful time, seven minutes before the break, just when it looked as though United had steadied the ship and could regroup at half-time.
As the teams re-emerged after the break, few people would have predicted what would happen in the opening 15 minutes of the second period.
With David Cushley the catalyst, the Sky Blues embarked upon another epic comeback with Cushley hooking home from close range before firing one of the best United goals of this or any other season to draw the sides level at 2-2.
At that point in the game, United were on top form, with Brian McCaul tackling tigerishly and Ballymena looking a real threat.
But there had been enough instances in the game to suggest that United would once again open up at the back and the winning goal once again fell into the category of avoidable, from Ballymena’s point of view.
Yes, Tony Kane’s clearing header from George McMullan’s cross was weak but you have to give credit to Marty Donnelly, who had the presence of mind to anticipate that might happen and, rather than challenge Kane for the header, peeled off and waited for the ball to drop to him.
Dwayne Nelson might also feel that, having got a hand to Donnelly’s shot, that he might have kept it out but the keeper certainly saved Ballymena on a number of other occasions.
When you strip away the romantic notion of the great comeback and that stunning Cushley goal it wasn’t as close a game as some United fans might suggest.
Once again, Ballymena’s rearguard was carved open on numerous occasions and but for Nelson’s prowess in one-on-one situations, the Reds would have added to their tally.
Certainly, some of those attacks came in the closing stages when United were desperately throwing men forward but had Jay Donnelly gone for goal rather than try to set up Gormley for his hat-trick, it would have been 3-0 to Cliftonville and it’s very doubtful that we would have seen that brilliant United comeback.
You would expect the league champions to create openings but the ease with which they opened up Ballymena’s defence did little to dispel the concern that Ferguson urgently needs to plug the gaps in his defence, but time is rapidly running out in the January transfer window and the options for new arrivals in that department are looking increasingly limited.
No Irish League game would be complete without some controversial refereeing decisions and both sides will fee they have cause for concern n that area.
Ballymena were certain they should have had a penalty for Eamonn Seydak lying on the ball with both hands in the penalty area, while Cliftonville felt aggrieved with David Cushley’s challenge on Seydak which led to the defender being stretchered off.
My main concern is not to much some of the decisions themselves - after all, disputed decisions are part and parcel of football - but rather the fact that even with two additional assistant referees, they still weren’t spotted.
The fact that incidents like the Seydak handball and Johnny Taylor’s petulant flick towards grounded Cliftonville keeper Peter Cherrie weren’t seen by not only the referee but also an assistant on the sideline and also an additional assistant behind the goal-line less than 10 yards away should give cause for concern for referees’ chiefs who feel that six officials are better than four.
There is absolutely no point whatsoever in paying two extra officials if they are not going to contribute towards helping the referee come up with the correct decision in key incidents.
But that shouldn’t be some sort of smokescreen to distort the overall picture of the game.
When you look at it in the cold light of day, Cliftonville squandered a number of clear-cut openings, while you struggle to name two many instances of Ballymena testing Cherrie.
You expect that sort of scenario when the league champions meet a mid-table team so it’s no criticism of Ballymena’s efforts - the frustration, yet again, is that Ballymena have scored enough goals to give themselves a more than decent chance of winning a game, only to not do so.
Overall, it was an enjoyable experience for the club and supporters to be in another final, with all the build-up and hype that brings, but the likelihood remains that if United can continue to reach knockout deciders, it will take a Herculean effort to overcome on of the Irish League’s ‘big guns’ in the one-off arena of a cup final and they are likely to remain the underdogs in those games for some time to come.
To reach a fourth final in just over two-and-a-half years would be a remarkable achievement for Ballymena but Saturday night’s defeat graphically illustrates the task ahead of the Sky Blues in the Irish Cup encounter at Solitude next month.
* Follow Ballymena Times Sports Editor Stephen Alexander on Twitter (@Stephen_Bmena)