AH, the magic of the Irish Cup...
Fifth round day, where the ‘big guns’ enter the competition to do battle with the minnows; a day of great excitement and shocks galore...
Er, wait a minute, I’ll stop you there.
Without trying to sound wise after the event, I glanced down through the fixtures the other day and thought to myself it was entirely conceivable that every single one of the games – particularly those involving senior clubs – could go entirely as anticipated with the favourites for each tie going through. Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened.
Setting aside Warrenpoint Town (more on them later) beating Cliftonville on penalties a couple of season ago and, by and large, shock results don’t tend to happen in the Irish Cup, certainly not on a regular basis, and there’s a very good reason for that.
Unlike in the FA Cup in England, clubs in Northern Ireland treat the country’s premier knockout with the reverence it deserves - even though the famous old trophy doesn’t even have a sponsor at present.
My second biggest pet hate of the ‘Sky’ era in English football – after people who purport to ‘follow’ a particular club simply because it’s fashionable despite their interaction not stretching beyond watching Jeff Stelling on Soccer Saturday – is the manner in which the importance of the FA Cup has been diluted to the point where it is viewed as little more than a distraction.
I find it extraordinary that many top-flight clubs in England shun the cup in favour of their more pressing priority of finishing fourth from bottom of the Premier League.
Not so in Northern Ireland, thankfully. A quick glance at the teamlists from the weekend and you don’t see Irish League clubs making nine or 10 changes from the previous week’s line-up.
Instead, Irish Cup fifth round day is a day in which Irish Premiership clubs try to field their STRONGEST possible team because they realise the benefits a cup run can bring in terms of prestige and raising both profile and revenue.
Ironically, the closest thing to an Irish Cup upset at the weekend came on our own doorstep as Ballymena United laboured to an uninspiring victory over a Warrenpoint Town side who were simply brilliant for most of Saturday’s tie.
Thank goodness Glenn Ferguson didn’t take the view with Alan Davidson that ‘we’ve an important league game at Glentoran on Tuesday night’ and leave the fit-again midfielder out of his squad, otherwise the Sky Blues would be facing the prospect of a nerve-jangling replay.
Davidson’s cracking late strike dug United out of a massive hole in a game in which the better team certainly lost.
Warrenpoint fully deserved the standing ovation they received from Ballymena’s supporters as they left the pitch.
I’ve often felt that the gesture of applauding an opposing team off is a largely insincere one, and more of a reflection as to the crowd’s opinion of their own team’s performance, but this reception was heartfelt.
Such are the fine margins involved that instead of facing potential Irish Cup humiliation, Ballymena squeaked through to set up a mouth-watering and money-spinning sixth round tie against Coleraine – although Health and Safety will undoubtedly dictate numbers once again, as per Boxing Day.
Do you think Glenn Ferguson and Oran Kearney will ‘rest’ players that day? Not on your life!
* Follow Ballymena Times Sports Editor Stephen Alexander on Twitter (@Stephen_Bmena).