It was a night of bruised pride for all the Irish League sides with Glentoran losing heavily to Sligo Rovers and Setanta Cup holders Crusaders exiting the competition after losing 2-0 at home to Cork City in their second leg meeting. But for Linfield to lose to heavily – a missed penalty in the final minute was the final insult – was very hard to take, though the visitors did admit that the better side had won on the night.
"That's a good Rovers team, credit where credit is due," admitted a rueful Linfield boss David Jeffrey after the game, aware that his club's last remaining chance of winning a trophy this season was now gone.
It leaves Rovers with a foot firmly in the semi-finals – it's hard to see a demoralised Linfield side turning around a three-goal deficit in the second leg next Monday – and for the Hoops the win was, it's hoped, a sign that the goals will flow this season, last night's efforts converted by Ciaran Kilduff (2), Ronan Finn and sub Stephen Rice.
"We created chances and scored four great goals so that's a good omen for the season," says Shane Robinson, back at Rovers after spells away in Australia and Finland.
Rovers owned the ball in the early stages of the game as Linfield, coming into the tie on the back of some poor domestic form, struggled.
But it was also a frustrating period for the home side as they had to wait until the 34th minute to get the lead goal. Sean O'Connor sent in a free-kick and as Linfield keeper Ross Glendinning made a mess of his save, Ronan Finn was left unmarked to stab home.
In the final minute of the first half Rovers were 2-0 up, Ciaran Kilduff left with a simple header after some good work out wide by Finn.
Game over at half-time? It looked that way but Linfield had other ideas and got a goal back – the best goal of the night – on 63 minutes, Billy Joe Burns beating Barry Murphy from distance with a stunning shot.
Aware that it was away goals which got them past Rovers when the sides last met, in the European Cup in 1984, Linfield hoped for more but the off-colour Blues lacked that clinical edge and it was the home side who found a new gear, adding two more goals in nine minutes.
Kilduff made it 3-1 on 73 minutes when he was set-up by Pat Sullivan, and sub Stephen Rice added a fourth eight minutes from time.
"If anybody wants to get a lesson in football suicide, then they should watch the video," said Jeffrey after the game. "We had Rovers watched and knew they would come out of the blocks but I was bitterly disappointed with our ball retention.
"We addressed that at half-time and I thought we were much brighter, we got a fantastic goal and I really thought we could get a draw.
"We did the things you're not supposed to do, we turned our back for a free kick and didn't watch our man and it was 3-1. Then for the fourth one it was more defensive suicide. We got a penalty but missed it and missed the rebound, so I am bitterly disappointed and frustrated.
"Coming to Windsor Park next week, they will feel they can score so we will have to be tremendously sharper in front of goal and do mammothly better defensively."