The 2023/24 Irish League season came to a close this afternoon and it was the worst possible ending to the season for Linfield who were beaten by Cliftonville after extra-time in the Clearer Water Irish Cup Final.

The Blues earned their place in the showpiece occasion with wins over Warrenpoint Town, Ballymena United, Institute and Glentoran, but they fell short on the final hurdle. Cliftonville, on the other hand, got there with wins over Loughgall, Coleraine, Portadown and Larne, and their prize was a first Irish Cup success since 1979.

With 14,898 in attendance, it was the biggest attendance at a domestic match in Northern Ireland this century, with tickets on both sides selling out in a matter of hours. It led to a great occasion full of colour and noise, 90 years on from the two clubs’ last meeting in an Irish Cup Final.

Linfield made a bright start to the match and went close inside four minutes following a corner as Kyle McClean teed up Chris McKee whose low shot was well saved by the Clliftonville ‘keeper who dived low to his right.

The Blues then took an early lead in the fourteenth minute as Kirk Millar delivered a free-kick from the right and Ethan McGee rose highest to power in a header from inside the six-yard box, a great time to get his third goal of the season, or so it seemed at the time.

David Healy’s men were well in command in the opening 25 minutes and perhaps will regret not scoring another goal during that spell. Daniel Finlayson headed wide of the post from another one of a number of dangerous free-kick deliveries from Kirk Millar, one of a number of decent chances in the opening 25 minutes.

Cliftonville started slowly but grew into it. They were a matter of inches away from equalising on 26 minutes when Rory Hale crossed invitingly from the left towards Sam Ashford who’d peeled off at the back post, but at full stretch the forward was unable to get a touch which would have surely resulted in a goal if he’d made it.

The Reds had a great opportunity a minute later following patient passing before Ronan Doherty was ultimately teed up just inside the box, but he fired his shot over from a great position.

Cliftonville were forced into a substitution in the 36th minute when their goalkeeper took a knock during an innocuous 50/50 challenge with Joel Cooper. He was unable to shake it off and was replaced by Nathan Gartside in the Reds’ goal, however the Blues were unable to ask too many questions of the former Derry City ‘keeper.

The Blues almost doubled their lead on the brink of half-time when a clever short corner routine saw Kirk Millar pick out Joel Cooper in space near the penalty spot, however his shot was crucially blocked.

Unfortunately, Cliftonville defender Odhran Casey suffered what appeared to be a serious injury which occurred in stoppage time at the end of the first half and the referee rightly halted the half early. Casey was stretchered off and Luke Kenny came on at half-time as his replacement.

HT: Linfield 1-0 Cliftonville

The Blues went close to doubling their lead twice in quick succession four minutes into the second half. Joel Cooper did brilliantly to work space to get a cross in and Fitzpatrick was unable to get a touch on it before it came through to Kirk Millar at the back post where his cross was crucially blocked. Again, a short time later, his cross was just beyond the reach of Fitzpatrick in the middle.

Cliftonville made a strong start to the second half, playing with increased courage and they were rewarded in the 52nd minute when Rory Hale swung a cross in from the right and forward Sam Ashford got a glancing header on the end of it to divert the ball into the far corner.

Lifted by their goal, the Reds suddenly fancied their chances and went close to take the lead on 63 minutes as defender Jonathan Addis stooped to get his head on Rory Hale’s deep free-kick delivery from the left. Addis headed it back across goal towards the far corner where it trickled just wide with Chris Johns scrambling across.

The Blues then almost offered a timely response as they then went close to retaking the lead. A swift counter-attack saw Chris McKee thread a neat pass through to Chris McKee and he swept the ball out to Joel Cooper on the left, and the winger drove in a low shot which flashed agonisingly wide of the far post.

Cliftonville made their third injury-enforced substitution of the match on 72 minutes as Sean Stewart picked up a knock and was replaced by Stephen Mallon at left wing-back. A minute later Rory Hale caught a strike sweetly on the edge of the box but it was quite central which allowed Chris Johns to be able to catch it.

David Healy turned to his bench on 77 minutes. Linfield captain Jamie Mulgrew had been a doubt in the lead-up to the final, and he showed his commitment to make himself available and put in a good shift. He had run his race, however, and was replaced by Josh Archer who was in a similar situation, when it was expected that his season was over due to injury. Archer had not played for five weeks. Chris McKee also came off in the double substitution, replaced by sixteen-year-old Braiden Graham.

Still, the Blues were unable to craft out any meaningful opportunities in the latter stages of regular time, with the game evenly poised. Cliftonville almost nicked it in the 83rd minute when a corner delivery went through a sea of bodies at the near post and required Matthew Fitzpatrick at the back post to hook the ball off the goalline.

FT: Linfield 1-1 Cliftonville

Linfield had the worst possible start to extra-time. Cliftonville took the lead just 47 seconds into the first fifteen-minute half of extra-time as a loose ball was intercepted but Reds’ substitute forward Ben Wilson who released Ronan Hale down the left. Hale cut inside and rifled a crisp strike into the far corner to put the Reds in front.

The Blues had another 29 minutes to respond, but found it hard to muster up clear-cut opportunities. The only one worth noting in the first half of extra-time was when Matthew Fitzpatrick chested the ball down to Kyle McClean on the edge of the box, however his shot lacked true conviction and was saved fairly comfortably.

HT extra-time: Linfield 1-2 Cliftonville

With legs tiring on both sides, Rhys Annett replaced Matthew Fitzpatrick for Linfield at the break, and Shea Gordon replaced Rory Hale for Cliftonville.

The Blues had plenty of possession in the final stages but couldn’t get a breakthrough. Cliftonville ‘keeper Nathan Gartside was fortunate that he was able to pounce on a loose ball after initially spilling a Kirk Millar cross.

The only big opportunity for Linfield came in the 120th minute with a free-kick right on the edge of the box in a great position after Joel Cooper was fouled, however Kirk Millar fired it over the crossbar.

Cliftonville then sealed the victory and the cup in the fifth and final minute of added time when Linfield had committed all players forward – including the goalkeeper – and a blocked cross saw the ball break to a Cliftonville man who got the ball to Ronan Hale who was able to race through on goal from inside his own half with nobody in front of him to stop him. He walked the ball in to bring an end to the Reds’ 45-year Irish Cup hoodoo.

A disappointing ending to a season which promised so much just a few weeks ago, with the Blues’ inability to hold on to a lead hurting them once more.

FT AET: Linfield 1-3 Cliftonville

Written by Jamie Megarry