TYRONE’S incredible Milk Cup odyssey concluded in the most gut-wrenching fashion when the county’s heroic under-17s conceded a stoppage-time winner to the mighty Manchester United in the showpiece final at jam-packed Ballymena showgrounds on Friday, August 2, 2013.
With a penalty shootout looming large, the magnificent Tyrone defence for once failed to clear an Andreas Pereira corner kick and Oliver McBurney swooped from close range to head in off the crossbar.
McBurney’s fifth goal of the tournament was a dagger through Tyrone’s hopes of ultimate glory.
To make matters even more painful referee Keith Kennedy twisted the knife by denying the young Red Hands what looked like a nailed on penalty seconds later when United stopper Joel Castro Pereira felled striker Mark Megarry as he galloped into the penalty area.
It’s hard to imagine there has been a more excruciating defeat in the competition’s 38-year history than that suffered by Stephen Hunter’s battling charges who had become the first county side to reach the Premier final following victories over Club America de Mexico, Otago and memorable semi-final victory over CSKA Moscow.
Coach Stephen Hunter admitted the players were “in bits” at the final whistle: “I wasn’t actually too bad after the match but I was gutted for the cubs more than anything else, they were absolutely devastated. It’s something I never want to see again, it was gut-wrenching.
“The whole thing was an unreal experience. We knew that United would be the better team and that we weren’t going to see much of the ball. So we didn’t change our game plan, we played our own game.
“To be fair we rode our luck a wee but during the game but to concede one minute into injury-time was heart-wrenching.
“And for the referee to bottle it. At the time when big Mark knocked the ball past the goalkeeper I thought it was a penalty but I wasn’t 100% sure. However the replay shows it was stonewall.”
As they had done against CSKA, a well-organised Tyrone had spent much of the second half manning the barricades and inspired by goalkeeper Patrick Molloy, who was deservedly named man of the match, they had kept the next generation of Old Trafford superstars at bay until the dying seconds.
The first half had been a low-key affair with United’s highly-rated midfielder Joe Riley testing Molloy from distance before the gifted play-maker teed up McBurney to fire inches wide.
Demetri Mitchell cut in from the right to shoot straight at Molloy as the Tyrone rearguard of Matthew Young, Lorcan Mallon, Shay Duffy and James Edgar continued to keep United’s star-studded attack at arm’s length.
Much to the delight of nearly 4,000 supporters – most of whom were vociferously cheering on the Red Hands – the second half proved a much livelier affair and in the opening seconds all eyes were firmly fixed on referee Kennedy when Tyrone skipper Ross Lavery was sent sprawling from the challenge of United defender Tyler Reid.
No sooner had the whistler waved away Tyrone’s appeals than their opponents were back on the attack with Matthew Wilcock firing straight down Molloy’s throat before Riley looped a header inches over.
By now the Tyrone midfield of Conal Crawford, Kris Lowe, Kyle Deery and Lavery was having to work overtime but as the game progressed the midfield quartet presented more of an attacking threat in support of Mark Megarry and Marc McConnell, who was replaced by the lightening-quick Aaron Porter.
But it was United who cranked it up in the final 10 minutes. A goal-bound effort by McBurney was superbly blocked by Mallon before Molloy produced yet another full stretch save to thwart the United marksman and followed that up by denying Mitchell from close range.
Seconds later the Tyrone stopper nailed down the man of the match honour with a world class stop to thwart Ruairi Croskery as the contest entered ‘Fergie time’.
Then came the heartbreak. Pereira’s dangerous corner kick from right caused panic in the Red Hand ranks and when the ball ricocheted up into the air from a defensive block McBurney swooped to head home from close range.
A desperate Tyrone had time for one final throw of the dice and when two-goal semi-final hero Megarry got on the end of a long bouncing ball to head it over Pereira before being chopped down by the United goalkeeper charging from his goal, all eyes firmly focused on the match official fully expecting a penalty to be awarded.
To the disbelief of most and the total disgust of the Tyrone faithful it never came. Seconds later it was all over. United were crowned champions for a fourth time in a decade while Tyrone and their supporters were left in bits.
It was the cruelest possible end to what had been an outstanding Tyrone campaign and Hunter said that through time his players should look back on 2013 with a real sense of achievement.
“They haven’t realised what they have done yet,” he continued.
“It’s some achievement for a county side to get to the Premier cup final.
“For me personally it was a fantastic experience. Sharing the highs and lows with the lads, qualifying, beating CSKA in the semi and reaching the final.
“It’s something I’ll never forget and through time it’ll be the same for the players.”
Molloy; Young; Mallon; Duffy; Edgar; Deery; Crawford; Lowe; Lavery; Megarry; McConnell; Lynch; Porter; Teague; Rankin; McDevitt; McMaster.
JC Pereira; Reid; Thompson; Tunzebe; Jackson; Riley; Wilock; A Pereira; Croskery; McBurney; Mitchell; McTominey; Nicholson; O’Hara; Rashford; Scott; Dick; Rathbone.
Referee: K Kennedy (Lisburn)
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