An outstanding volley from substitute Johnny McMurray with virtually the last kick of extra time won the Irish Cup for Crusaders in hugely dramatic fashion.
McMurray’s strike in the 122nd minute against his former club gave the Crues a 2-1 victory over Ballymena United at Windsor Park.
The Shore Road men had only forced extra time through a Josh Robinson goal – following a flick-on from goalkeeper Jonny Tuffey who had come up for a corner – in the 93rd minute.
Ballymena, inspired by an all-action performance from captain Leroy Millar, had looked on course to lift the cup through a ninth-minute Robbie Weir own goal until that late Robinson leveller.
They had a great opportunity to double their lead just before the break when hesitancy between BJ Burns and Daniel Larmour saw Burns mis-hit a backpass that played David Parkhouse through on goal, but the former Derry City striker opted to go round Tuffey and that allowed Burns the chance to get back and dispossess him.
The Crues had looked disjointed for most of the match but will not mind that as they secured the a fifth Irish Cup in the club’s history and the first since 2019.
It is a third Irish Cup success as Crues boss for Stephen Baxter and, crucially, it means the north Belfast side are now guaranteed a place in next season’s Europa League, meaning they do not need to take part in the European play-offs.
The victory also marked a successful end to Declan Caddell’s playing career, with the midfielder taking up a head of academy role at Seaview after playing more than 500 games for the club.
It was heartbreak for David Jeffrey and Ballymena, however, with the manager and almost every player dropping to their knees on the Windsor pitch after McMurray’s volley flew in.
A long free-kick into the box was not cleared properly and, as the ball fell to McMurray, the striker connected perfectly with his right-foot volley to fire past Jordan Williamson.
Ballymena took the lead in the ninth minute when Andy McGrory’s in-swinging corner from the left was met at the near post by Weir but, as he tried to clear, he got his connection all wrong and instead deflected the ball into his own net right in front of the Crues supporters in the East Stand.
Crusaders’ equaliser could barely have been more dramatic. Goalkeeper Tuffey came up for a 93rd-minute corner and got his head to Paul Heatley’s delivery, with substitute Robinson arriving at the back post to stab it home from close range.
Crusaders had the momentum from that point and almost scored earlier in extra time when substitute Aidan Wilson met a Brandon Doyle corner but his header hit the crossbar. Ballymena’s only chance in the additional period fell to substitute Kenny Kane but he delayed and his shot was blocked.
Ballymena make early running as Crues look sloppy
Ballymena almost took the lead just before Weir’s own goal when Millar ran on to a beautiful through ball from McGrory but the Sky Blues captain’s low shot was superbly saved by Tuffey, who narrowed the angle well before blocking.
That own goal clearly rocked Crusaders, with the next 15 minutes seeing a lot of poor passing from them as the hard running of Millar and Ryan Waide caused their defence problems, with Parkhouse providing a focal point to the attack.
Crusaders slowly started to edge into the match and came close to equalising when the talented Ben Kennedy forced an excellent save from Williamson with a curling free-kick that looked like it was going to creep inside the near post.
Veteran winger Heatley had a good chance to level on 35 minutes when he ran on to an Adam Lecky flick-on, but Ross Redman managed to get back and slide in to produce a crucial block to Heatley’s left-foot shot.