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Irish Cup defeat was ‘cruellest moment’ for David Jeffrey

“That is, without a shadow of a doubt, the cruellest moment of my managerial career.”

That was David Jeffrey’s assessment on Ballymena United’s heartbreaking Irish Cup final defeat to Crusaders.

Jeffrey has seen most things during his long and distinguished football career, but nothing could have prepared his for the events at Windsor Park on Saturday afternoon.

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The Sky Blues looked to be set to end their Irish Cup agony and end a wait of 33 years since their last triumph after Robbie Weir’s early own goal gave them a lead which they deservedly held until stoppage time at the end of the game.

Ballymena United players are dejected after Johnny McMurray’s winner for Crusaders

Unbelievably Josh Robinson levelled the game in the 93rd minute from a flick on by goalkeeper Jonny Tuffey.

And they did it again at the end of extra time as form Ballymena man Johnny McMurray smashed home a dramatic winner for the Crues.

Football can be very cruel. Today we saw football at its most cruel,” Jeffrey said.

“I thought we were excellent for long periods, I thought we were the better side for long periods.

“We were a minute away from winning it in ordinary time. Then we go to extra-time and we’re even less than a minute away from taking them to penalties.

“I feel bitterly disappointed for our chairman, Mr John Taggart, who has done so much alongside Mr Don Sterling. Our board, our committee, our supporters turned out in incredible numbers and gave us so much support, it was phenomenal.

“The players ran themselves into the ground, they gave absolutely everything. Football can be a cruel game, today you saw it at its absolute worst.”

“We were certainly the dominant side, that’s no doubt,” Jeffrey added.

“When you are on top, it’s important you take advantage of that, and the number of chances we had we should have had a second goal, but it wasn’t to be. It’s all ifs, ands and buts.”

Although it will take a while to get over the defeat Jeffrey said the Sky Blues will come back stronger.

“You can either feel sorry for yourself or you can say ‘stuff this’ so unfortunately you may have to stick me for a few more press conferences yet because the hunger is probably greater now,” he said.

“You think ‘what have you got to do?’ but we will get there. Today was blooming horrible, that is the long and short of it, but the over-riding thing is that our players were brilliant. Our supporters were brilliant.

"I can’t ask for anything more than that. We will dust ourselves down, get back up again and we will come out swinging.”

Ballymena skipper Leroy Millar was named Man of the Match on the day but for his there was only one trophy that mattered.

“Individual accolades are nice, but at the end of the day I wanted my hands on the Irish Cup,” said the midfielder.

“I’m speechless,” said the Sky Blues skipper. “That’s football, but I didn’t think we deserved that, I thought the boys were outstanding.

“To come within two minutes of winning the Irish Cup? I’m just gutted. That’s the word. So close yet so far but, at the end of the day, if you’re not ruthless and don’t take your chances when you’re on top, that’s football.

“The early goal helped us settle down and get on the ball. I thought the game plan worked well, we just came up short two minutes from time and fair play to Crusaders on winning the Irish Cup.

“It’s hurting. Big time. I’m gutted for the boys as well, we just need to learn from it and next season use it as fuel to light the fire and go again.”

Experienced defender Ross Redman said the Sky Blues can be proud of their performance.

“We worked hard, our game plan worked well, but I think we probably needed the second goal,” he said.

“You never really mark the keeper when he comes up, and he got the flick on and they scored.

“I think everyone thought it was going to penalties then in extra time there’s another sucker punch.

“Overall I think we can be proud of our performance. We came here and showed we can play, we showed the quality we have in the squad.”