Irish Cup: On-song players make their own noise in quietly impressive double bill

By Mark SterlingBBC Sport NI
Elliott Morris
Veteran Glentoran keeper Elliott Morris made two saves in the penalty shoot-out to help his side to victory

As the jubilant Glentoran players left the Windsor Park pitch, they shouted in celebration to the handful of club officials looking down from the South Stand.

Coming as it did late at night after a dramatic double-bill of Irish Cup semi-finals, it was a fitting snapshot of how normal met unusual during a historic occasion for Northern Ireland football.

Having just booked their place in the final with a nail-biting penalty shoot-out win over Cliftonville, after what was a hugely captivating last-four tie, it was natural for the Glens players to rejoice.

What was very unnatural, of course, was how you could clearly hear the players' voices reverberating around the south Belfast stadium. A stadium that - apart from a small number of club officials, media and Irish FA operational staff - was empty due to social distancing restrictions.

There had been similar scenes four hours earlier when Ballymena United beat Coleraine in a shoot-out, in what was the first competitive senior match in Northern Ireland for 142 days because of the coronavirus lockdown.

Conor McMenamin was impressive for Cliftonville on the left wing
Conor McMenamin was impressive for Cliftonville on the left wing

While those watching live on BBC TV did so to the backdrop of generated fan noise, there were regular reminders for those inside the ground of just how far away Monday was from the traditional semi-final set-up.

Half an hour out from the 16:00 BST kick-off in the Sky Blues-Bannsiders derby clash, the music from the Windsor sound system that accompanied the players' warm-up was no doubt purposely loud enough to somewhat disguise the lack of supporters.

However, it was when the players trudged back off the pitch 10 minutes before the game was scheduled to start that the first noticeable silence fell across the ground - the hush was palpable.

Once the action got underway, though, it was thankfully quite easy to lose yourself in all the usual ebbs and flows of a football match.

Players talk during a game. A lot. Particularly goalkeepers and centre-halves - and their quite often colourful, and always animated, lines of communication filled the ground with the proper feel of an important match.

Indeed, it was only when the fake noise was played to mark Eoin Bradley's spectacular opening goal for Coleraine that there was another stark reminder of the unusual circumstances in which the game was being played.

As the tempo of the match dropped in the second half, it became easier to notice the swathes of empty seats, but again the action took centre stage when Ballymena substitute Kenny Kane scored an unlikely equaliser in the 94th minute to force extra-time and penalties.

The spot-kicks being taken in almost complete silence in both games was perhaps the strangest element of the entire occasion, with the weird feeling only enhanced by the decision to hit play on the celebratory crowd noise for each successful kick.

Eoin Bradley
Eoin Bradley hit the post with a free-kick after scoring from one earlier

After a quick turnaround, the Glens and the Reds locked horns at 20:00 - and produced a spectacle that would not be out of place in a discussion about the best matches of the campaign.

Both sides were full of attacking intent from the outset, with Cliftonville's Conor McMenamin and Glentoran's Navid Nasseri the shining examples of the technical ability and energy on display.

Extra-time became a bit of a non-event - which is so often the case whether fans are there or not - but the players deserve huge credit for the quality and intensity they produced in normal time, especially considering they have not played in over four months.

Five hundred fans will be allowed to attend Friday's final back at Windsor, but Monday was about how an Irish Cup semi-final would look, sound and feel in an empty stadium.

What qualifies as normal has long-since been skewed by the Covid-19 pandemic, but the players of Ballymena United, Coleraine, Cliftonville and Glentoran did absolutely all they could to make these semi-finals seem as close to normal as possible.

Top Stories

Also in NI Sport