Football played between the ears as well as on the pitch

Goalkeeper Dwayne Nelson was arguably the only Ballymena United player to emerge from Saturday's defeat at Crusaders with any credit. Picture: Press Eye.
Goalkeeper Dwayne Nelson was arguably the only Ballymena United player to emerge from Saturday's defeat at Crusaders with any credit. Picture: Press Eye.

DRIVING home from Seaview on Saturday, mentally sifting through the wreckage of Ballymena United’s weekend thrashing, a thought struck me.

The highs and lows of the past week for United really made me wonder, what percentage of football is played between the ears, rather than on the pitch?

The fixture list threw up an intriguing combination of games within the past seven days – with a trip to two grounds which have brought delight and dread in equal measures for Ballymena supporters in recent years.

And lo and behold, it panned out in exactly the same manner as many people predicted, with United winning at Glentoran before being humbled at Seaview by a massively under-strength Crusaders.

No matter how many any manager, coach or player will try to deny it, I wonder just much previous games at particular venues weigh on players’ minds when they step onto the pitch.

To use the example of Ballymena’s recent record at the Oval – which now stretches to eight victories in their last 11 league games at the east Belfast venue – do players go out thinking ‘we KNOW we can win here’.

It wasn’t always that way for Ballymena. On the day that they recorded the first of those eight wins, under Tommy Wright on a Tuesday night in 2005, I remember using the headline on the back page match preview of that day’s Ballymena Times ‘Win is Oval-due’ – a reference to the fact that Ballymena had gone nine years without winning there.

How United could do with a win at Seaview to spark off a similar run or at least put the brakes on a dreadful sequence of results there.

Given that the current generation of Ballymena players have grown up having never won at Seaview – Kenny Shiels was in charge the last time a Ballymena team brought three points back home from the Shore Road – do they subconsciously cross the white line not believing they can end that sequence?

Of course, the answer could be a lot more simple – defend in the manner that Ballymena did on Saturday and it wouldn’t matter who or where you were playing, you’re going to get chinned.

I was genuinely pleased that Saturday’s game got the go-ahead, given the fact that Crusaders were shorn of the services of half-a-dozen key players through injury and suspension and would possibly have one eye on the forthcoming Irish Cup replay with Linfield and the Irn Bru League Cup final against Cliftonville.

My expectation level crept up even further when I arrived at the ground, looked at the teamsheet and saw the Crues had rookie keeper Jack McCrea in goal.

In the end, it’s not being overly-flippant to suggest that the home side could have played the game without anyone between the posts – it took Ballymena 75 MINUTES to even force the teenager to catch a cross.

After an opening half-hour which had nil-nil written all over it, Ballymena went into the sort of defensive meltdown which has become all-too-familiar this term, with only keeper Dwayne Nelson – surely a strong contender for the club’s Player of the Year accolades – sparing the Sky Blues further embarrassment.

Ballymena are like an over-exuberant gambler in Las Vegas – when they lose, they lose big. Conceding a goal seems to precipitate a house of cards-style collapse.

One final aside from the latest victory at the Oval; given that Glentoran’s future plans centre around the sale of the famous old venue, maybe Ballymena should put in a cheeky offer to buy the ground, transport it down the M2 and rebuild it on the Showgrounds site.

With United’s recent record there, they’d be virtually unstoppable – or perhaps that’s all in MY head!

* Follow Ballymena Times Sports Editor Stephen Alexander on Twitter (@Stephen_Bmena).