On the assumption that it is a case of when rather than if, it’s safe to declare that the team which finally ends Cliftonville’s Irish Cup hoodoo will go down in folklore.
Just as the heroes of 1979 are still lauded some 41 years later, so too will the Reds’ next Cup winners earn instant legendary status among generations of supporters.
The class of 1999 were confident they were the ones who would break the curse. Two years on from a Windsor Park defeat to Glenavon, Cliftonville’s Semi Final Replay victory over Linfield on this date 21 years ago set up a showpiece showdown with Portadown, presenting a beautiful anniversary symmetry against the very same Club who had been defeated two decades earlier.
As the game edged ever closer, though, rumours began to spread that the young substitute Marty Quinn had introduced early in the game had played for another Club in a previous round of the competition – speculation that would eventually solidify into fact and heartbreak for the squad.
Modern-day Assistant Manager Brian Donaghey, at the tail-end of his first season as a player at Solitude, takes up the story, as published in The Red Eye in May 7, 2019.
“It was whispered upon that a Linfield supporter had been at the Irish Cup match earlier in the season when Simon Gribben played for Kilmore Rec,” explains Donaghey.
“He told the Blues and they made an official complaint, apparently in the hope of replacing us in the Final. That didn’t happen, but it didn’t make it any easier for anyone at Cliftonville to bear.
“I had lost the 1995 Final with Carrick Rangers and, personally speaking, I felt like I had unfinished business with the Irish Cup.
“When you’re young and get the chance to play in a Cup Final, you take it for granted and think you might get another four or five in your career, but it doesn’t always work out like that and it didn’t for me.
“I remember Peter Murray being part of the Portadown team that Carrick beat in the 95 Semi Final and, when I signed for Cliftonville, he reminded me that I’d helped stop him getting his hand on the medal he really wanted.
“I sort of joked that we could both help eachother win it this time and, even now when I look back, he’s the one player I felt most for during the whole thing. He was absolutely gutted at how it turned out.
“We had beaten some good teams on the way to the Final and Minto had almost single-handedly beat Glentoran in the Sixth Round.
“Winning the Irish Cup would have been a great way for him to go out at the Reds.
“When we won that Semi-Final, Minto and I must have spent an hour-and-half together in the bath, celebrating with a few drinks and saying we were finally going to win the Cup together. We couldn’t have imagined what was going to happen.”
With Gribben officially ruled ineligible to have participated in that last-four encounter with the Blues, all sorts of consequences were discussed during daily media digests, ranging from Cliftonville accepting a voluntary ban from the following season’s competition to waiving the right to play in Europe should they win the Cup.
The Irish Football Association, however, ruled that, with Linfield’s complaint having come outside the necessary 48-hour deadline, there would be no Final and the trophy would instead be presented to Portadown.
“I don’t think anybody was happy with that outcome,” says Donaghey.
“A few weeks later at the League’s end-of-season awards, by coincidence a lot of Cliftonville and Portadown players ended up at the same table together and they were telling us how disappointing it was for them not to get to experience the Final. They received the trophies in their suits at Shamrock Park, it didn’t mean anything to them – it was a hollow victory.
“There was talk that Cliftonville had offered not to take any prize-money or play in Europe if we’d won the Cup and I’d even heard that a businessman was going to put the money up to make sure the Cup Final went ahead.
“So many things stick in my mind, even wee things like our kit. In those days, you didn’t have your name above your number on the back of your shirt but Le Coq Sportif, who made our kits at the time, were going to make us the first Irish League team to do that. I’m sure those shirts must be lying around somewhere.”
Gribben would eventually return to the Cliftonville fold and made a reasonable impression with a smattering of key goals, with Donaghy adding: “I think initially Marty Quinn had told the kid to stay away from training and things like that, just to keep his head down and to take the spotlight off him. I actually bumped into Simon on holiday a few years later and spoke to him about it. I think he was oblivious to the whole thing and had no idea he’d already played in the Irish Cup that season – I really want to believe him, but I know I’d have remembered if it had been me.
“It was just horrible for everyone involved, especially because we really thought our name was on the trophy and, to tell you the truth, with Peter Murray in our team, there was no way we’d have lost that match – no way.”