When Rory Donnelly was forced out of the starting XI, having picked up an injury in the warm up, you got the feeling that maybe things were going against the Glens and maybe the season was going to finish with a whimper.
It may be a football cliche but one player's misfortune can be another player's opportunity and Conor McMenamin, drafted into the team as a direct replacement for Rory, turned out to be the match winner and guarantee Glentoran European football next season.
Games between the two clubs have been really tight affairs this season. Larne prevailed in the final of the Co Antrim Shield via a penalty shoot-out and two of the league encounters ended in draws but crucially, Glentoran won the other two.
Caolan Marron was missing from the squad due to a family bereavement but manager, Mick McDermott was able to welcome back skipper Marcus Kane and Dayle Coleing whilst Cricky Gallagher got a deserved start in midfield.
Glentoran started on the front foot and Dale Gorman had opportunities with two free kicks in the opening 3 minutes. The first he fired off target and the second, played into the danger area, was cleared by the home defence. Ronan Hale had a chance for Larne when he intercepted a poor pass from Cricky Gallagher but his long range effort didn't trouble Gibraltar's international keeper. Jay Donnelly then saw his shot from just inside the area deflected wide for a corner whilst at the other end a corner from the home side was met by Josh Robinson but he failed to keep his header down.
Midway through the first half, Mark Randall, guilty of a late tackle on Gael Bigirimana in the last meeting between the sides at the Oval, picked up a yellow card for another rash challenge; this time on Cricky Gallagher. The same player then committed another foul on Bigirimana and was perhaps fortunate that referee Steven Gregg took no further action. The final chance of a competitive but largely uneventful first half came on 39 minutes courtesy of another Dale Gorman free kick. Gorman's kick was powerfully struck but Conor Mitchell in the home goal got right behind it and produced a decent save.
Halftime: Larne 0-0 Glentoran
Glentoran grabbed the lead early in the second half. The hard working Robbie McDaid, who had an excellent game, flicked the ball on to Jay Donnelly. Donnelly drove into the box past both Robinson and Watson before driving the ball across goal. Dean Jarvis failed to clear it at the back post and having taken a touch to control the ball, Conor McMenamin fired it home from the corner of the 6-yard box.
On 49 minutes it was alomst 2-nil. Dale Gorman found Robbie McDaid and he cut inside the defender before curling a great effort just wide of the top corner. Around the hour mark both Gorman and Bigirimana had chances from range but both were off target. With 20 minutes remaining Larne's Davy McDaid went close with a 25-yard drive but Coleing was able to watch it go wide of the post.
Then with just under a quarter of an hour remaining..... controversy! Jay Donnelly was sent clear and having gone past goalkeeper Conor Mitchell, shot towards goal. Jeff Hughes clearly turned the ball behind with his hand to prevent a goal. We waited for the customary red card and the award of a penalty to Glentoran............... and we waited. Referee Gregg pointed for a corner. Understandably the Glentoran players and management were livid and to compound the error, Paul Millar was shown a red card for his protests. Whilst this decision eventually didn't affect the outcome of the game, had Larne equalised in the remaining minutes, Glentoran might have been denied a place in Europe and the financial benefit that qualification brings.
Larne threw everything at the Glens in the closing stages. An unmarked Josh Robinson had a free header from a corner but put it well wide and then substitute Martin Donnelly saw his free kick deflect off the wall and behind for a corner. From the resulting play the home side had another opportunity but Albert Watson's header was also wide of the mark, Glentoran saw the game out, including 5 minutes of added time and are guaranteed a minimum of 3rd place in this season's Danske Bank Premiership table. A win in our final game of the season, Crusaders at the Oval on Saturday, coupled with Larne taking something from their home fixture with Coleraine, would see the Glens finish in 2nd spot. We'll see how that pans out in the coming days but tonight we are back in Europe.
Photographs by PACEMAKER
Glentoran: Coleing, Marshall, Kane (c), McCullough, McClean, Bigirimana, Gorman (Crowe 89), Gallagher, McMenamin (Clucas 78), J. Donnelly (Mitchell 86) & McDaid