If the first hour was anything but the classic everyone expected, the last 30 minutes of the Jamaican Premier League final between last year's champions Montego Bay United and Arnett Gardens certainly delivered a six-pack of drama and excitement.
Two goals, two red cards, one dishearted mascot, a slap to the face here, a few near misses there, and a whole lot of joy for the folks in red and black. Arnett Gardens claimed their first championship since 2002 in beating United 2-0 in front of 20,000 inside Kingston's National Stadium in a two-faced clash on Monday night.
Andre Clennon celebrated his inclusion in Jamaica's preliminary squad for this summer's Copa America with the opener after an hour gone. While in poetic fashion, team idol and top marksman Leon Strickland, who was on the bench for the club's last title 13 years ago, turned up to seal the win and carve his name in Jungle folklore with an opportunistic and assured winner a few minutes later.
A hardly recognisable Montego Bay United finished the game embarrassingly with just nine players after Cordell Simpson and Ladale Richie received their marching orders in added time. United manager Dean Weatherly labeled their behaviour and sendings off "a disrespect to the entire country."
Simpson struck an opponent during a scuffle near the end of the match and Richie appeared to have said something bad enough to the referee as he was preparing to blow the full-time whistle. Still, Weatherly was perhaps also looking at himself during their long drive back to Jamaica's North Coast.
The defending champions started the contest with only four recognised attackers on the field, perhaps more intent on limiting Arnett Gardens' explosive offense rather than impose their own cavalier brand of play. It resulted in a bruising and physical first half that looked more like a wrestling match at times, with nothing more than a few half-chances and yellow cards highlighting a nearly un-watchable opening stanza.
Montego Bay's Lesly St Fleur had some early fun in the channels, and Owayne Gordon -- who left Arnett Gardens for Montego Bay in 2012 -- also gave the Junglists defence something to think about in the early exchanges. However, just one shot on target was registered for the entire first half.
Backpack-wearing Arnett Gardens coach Jerome Waite, who prowled the sidelines for the entire 90 minutes, found the inspiration needed at halftime to send his team back onto the field with renewed focus. The coach of the year awardee, whose team ended the preliminary round on top of the table, shared that he instructed his side to stretch the play wider and encouraged midfielder Renee Lloyd to pull the levers in the engine room.
It took immediate effect.
With 54 minutes played, it was Lloyd's free kick that was met forcefully by the red mane of Clennon, whose header bounced over the line after crashing off the underside of the crossbar. It was a timely and deserved goal from the man who also got on the score sheet in the semifinals against Humble Lions.
The partisan Arnett Gardens crowd was still celebrating when Strickland read the final rites in minute 64, pouncing on a fortunate rebound to drill his shot from the top of the box beyond the outstretched left arm of goalkeeper Jacomena Barrett. It took two goals to draw Montego Bay United out of their shells. Had Dino Williams made more of two half-chances that followed, maybe the story would have ended differently.
The striker slipped away from his marker Oneil "Bigga" Thompson in the box but found goalkeeper Damion Hyatt smothering the ball at his feet before he could pull back the hammer in the 70th minute. Williams then fired over the crossbar from a snapshot in the 82nd minute as the lights went out on Montego Bay's title defence.
"We failed to capitalise on our chances in the first half and that gave Arnett Gardens the ascendancy," assessed Weatherly. "Goals win games and we just couldn't score tonight."
In truth, with a solitary strike on target, Montego Bay -- perhaps suffering from their involvement in the Caribbean Football Union Club Championships while Arnett Gardens rested in wait -- never really got themselves into this contest.
Political representative for the Arnett Gardens community and chairman of the club Omar Davies lauded the spirit of the team and highlighted the significance of their victory to a community that is more often than not in the headlines for the wrong reasons. He was also full of praise for his skipper, Thompson.
"'Bigga' [Thompson] has been instrumental in keeping the team together, I'm very proud of him," Davies said amid jubilant fans who rushed the field at the final whistle. "Don't judge the sock-economic situation in communities like these, there is a lot of talent."