27 January ~ Here goes then. The obligatory article about that cup tie. The one everyone's been waiting for since the fixture was confirmed. This Saturday, the eyes of the football world will be on… Ballymena Showgrounds as Coleraine face Crusaders in the Irish League Cup final. It has been business as usual in the Irish League this season, with Linfield yet again sitting pretty at the top. There have been plenty of stirrings elsewhere though. Portadown have put together their first realistic title challenge in a decade, while Glentoran continue to stumble from one crisis to the next – their recent Irish Cup exit at the hands of amateurs Newington Youth Club led to the resignation of manager Scott Young.
In North Belfast, Crusaders' neighbours Cliftonville have made most of the headlines. The goalscoring exploits of Swansea recruit Rory Donnelly helped the Reds to a remarkable 14-game winning streak in all competitions, ended in the most dramatic fashion as Coleraine's booked their spot in this weekend's showpiece. With the semi-final tied at 1-1 in extra time and seemingly headed for penalties, Coleraine's left-back Johnny Black picked the ball up near the halfway line and set off on a slaloming run that took him to the edge of the Cliftonville box. He fired an unstoppable shot in off the post with virtually the last kick of the game, in front of the delirious Coleraine fans in the away end.
You would think that was a dramatic enough end to a semi-final, but it wasn't over there. Minutes after the final whistle, Black was punched by a supporter who had run onto the pitch. It wasn't the first time Black had made the headlines this season. Back in September, he scored a free-kick from his own half against Portadown and in the quarter final he repeated the trick from only slightly closer in to help Coleraine turn around a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1 at Glentoran.
Unfortunately, it also wasn't the first or last time this season that off-field events have marred the action. In the same competition in October, a firework thrown from the Portadown section led to two members of the Glentoran coaching staff receiving medical treatment. The goalkeeping coach Davy Mclelland was fortunate to escape serious injury after the offending object exploded in his face.
Portadown fans were also involved in disturbances at their traditional Boxing Day derby at nearby Glenavon. Meanwhile, Leon Knight, the Irish League's answer to Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli combined, hasn't featured for Coleraine since December. He has refused both the opportunity to find a home in the country or pay for his own flights from London – the club have run out of patience and money.
Back on the pitch, it has been a fantastic year for Coleraine. Manager Oran Kearney took over the reins at the north coast club almost a year ago, with the side three points from the bottom of the league and desperately short on confidence. His first game in charge, a 1-0 win away to local rivals Ballymena, was to be an accurate pointer as to what would follow. Having steered the side away from danger and towards an eventual seventh place finish, Kearney set about moulding the team in his own image for his first full season in charge.
With only four league defeats in 26 games, two of which have come against Linfield, Kearney has made an inconsistent Coleraine team much tougher to break down. He also encourages his players to express themselves, which was most clearly shown in a memorable 5-1 derby victory at Ballymena in September.
When it was first announced that the cup final would be played at the same venue, Coleraine fans were delighted. It's much closer to home than the national stadium in Belfast, and the choice of venue gives Coleraine a chance to win a trophy in their rival's own back yard, which would be all the more satisfying given Ballymena's own major trophy drought now stretches over two decades.
Demand for tickets has exceeded supply, with organisers forced to erect an additional temporary stand to house expectant Coleraine fans, as their team continues to attract attention. The latest internet sensation being recent signing Paul Owens' two goals direct from corners last weekend.
A tighter affair is expected on Saturday. Crusaders were runners up in the league and cup last season, but they have not fared so well this time around. They languish in sixth but are only five points behind Kearney's men in fourth. Both league meetings have been drawn.
The last time the two sides met in a final was back in 1996. That game also ended in a draw. Coleraine triumphed on penalties and it was the first time I saw them lift a trophy. With Johnny Black expected to recover from injury in time to take his place in the cup final side, the script may be written for him. What are the chances he'll score the winning penalty after another drawn game? If my nerves can survive that far, I might just escort him off the pitch personally. Stephen Adams