Banjaxed. That just about sums me up at this precise moment. Hectic. That just about sums up the day I have had, albeit in a good way.
With a ticket to the League Cup final secured, a 5:35 kick-off decreed by the Sky Sports cameras (FA Cup weekend so they're really hard up for live matches) and a bunch of Intermediate Cup matches kicking off at half one I decided, for reasons I have long since forgotten, to attend two separate matches in one day. I had two choices - Bloomfield or Immaculata - and I reasoned that east Belfast on a Saturday is a write-off warzone and it is nowhere near Windsor Park so the only option was Immaculata v Islandmagee. High end stuff.
Rolling out just after midday I took the bus down to the city centre but was forced to alight early to get to a Post Office and fire off a late ebay sale. Getting off at Shaftesbury Square I ran into the Sandy Row massive on their weekly pilgrimage to the City Hall, hauling all manner of union jacks along with them. SO much for the filth supposedly taking a harder line with road blocks as the mob marched along the road the whole way and the PSNI did sod all except provide an escort for them. Traffic couldn't move of course - if that's not blocking roads then I don't know what is.
Immaculata play on the Grosvenor Road in what is essentially an all weather pitch in a leisure centre. No covered standing or nothing, which was a real pity as it pelted with rain from start to finish. Islandmagee, meanwhile, is a cacky little place on the Antrim coast between Carrickfergus and Larne and known only as the scene of the last witch trial in Ireland
. They are however at a higher level than Immaculata, playing in the Premier Division of the Northern Amateur Football League, with Immaculata two divisions down in the NAFL 1B. For all the good it did them, mind you, as the Grosvenor mob triumphed 2-0 to advance to the fifth round, much to chagrin of the actually quite large crowd of Islandmagee supporters and associated culchie hangers-on, many of whom had made the trip because the lousy weather had wiped out a huge chunk of the card on the local football scene. The standard of play was appalling (particularly Islandmagee's number nine, a portly chap who seemed completely incapable of staying onside) but I suppose it is to be expected at this level.
With match one done and dusted a strolled back down the Grosvenor to Great Victoria Street train station and hopped the rails up to Balmoral, as the boys in black had decreed all Cliftonville supporters had to access the ground via Stockman's Lane and the Boucher Road rather than the more usual (and easily accessible) Lisburn Road. Balmoral station is about a mile and a half from Windsor's North Stand, nothing to me normally but a hell of a trek in torrential rain. Having steadfastly refused to yield to the smartphone craze I was effectively bereft of all information and thus was riddled with anxieties about postponement as I wended my way along the bland and featureless pedestrian-hating eyesore that is the Boucher Road. When I finally made it the match was still on but the rain was still pissing down non-stop and the two goalmouths were already glue pots. Things weren't helped by the on pitch compère, whose attempts to force the atmosphere for the cameras was unwelcome and annoying. It was a north Belfast derby at Windsor Park, we really didn't need some tosspot to create atmosphere the place was heaving on its own.
The game kicked off in atrocious weather conditions, with things slippery underfoot and parts of the pitch throwing up spray. Things were fairly evenly matched in the early going with both teams having half chances but then it all went wrong for the Crues as Diarmiud O'Carroll and Joe Gormley scored in quick succession to put Cliftonville 2-0 at half time. Bad to worse for the Shore Road shites not long into the second half as Paul Heatley got a straight red for a brutal tackle from behind on George McMullan. I've not seen it since but it did look a TV red card to me i.e. the sort of challenge that would see you sent off in a Sky Sports match but in the Irish League would normally be a yellow. I could be wrong of course as I just saw it in real time but by local standards it looked a bit harsh. Crues were toast by this point with two sweet strikes, one from Gormley and one from bald-headed midfield stopper and unsung hero Ryan "Cats" Catney, killing them off. Gormley, who had a belter of a match, might even have completed his hat trick late on but in the end there was to be no more as Crusaders surrendered meekly in losing 4-0. Given that Crusaders are second in the table behind Cliftonville a more competitive match was anticipated but they never got going and in the end the Reds were more than worthy winners. As the final whistle blew the rain, which had continued bucketing down throughout at levels that abandonment seemed a distinct possibility at times, suddenly stopped as if God himself had looked on and saw that it was good. Verily if this Cliftonville team does not go on and add the title to this League Cup triumph then something will be seriously wrong as they were at times imperious here.
The hike back to Balmoral was a little easier in the dry although in the dark the Boucher Road seemed somewhat interminable and the long wait on the lonely platform was a tad eerie and the train only left me two miles from home but the walk back up was easy as I had a spring in my step that comes only from the communal sharing of triumph. This was only the second time I personally had watched Cliftonville in a final - the first being the anti-climax of the Irish Cup defeat to Glenavon in 1997 - so to finally see them taking a trophy in a one-off match in the flesh was elating to say the least. Certainly a hard old slog but well worth the effort for a bit of early grass roots fun followed by a historic and emphatic win for the Reds.