IF there’s one crumb of consolation to be taken from Ballymena United’s fourth defeat by Coleraine this season, it’s that it has virtually eliminated the chances of it happening a fifth time.
It now seems certain that Ballymena and their fierce rivals will once again finish in different halves of the Danske Bank Premiership table come the end of March, thereby avoiding another meeting.
Saturday’s game was a must-win for Ballymena if they stood any outside chance of reaching the top six for the first time.
And in such a ‘last chance saloon’-style scenario, they made a pretty poor fist of it, if truth be told.
It was a game which quickly settled into a drearily familiar pattern of recent meetings with Coleraine’s midfield dominating possession, although like the Irish Cup meeting between the sides seven days earlier, chances for either side were few and far between.
Glenn Ferguson said in his after-match press conference that he changed formation from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2, presumably to counter the deficiencies which his side displayed in previous games against Coleraine.
But when you have three natural central midfielders in that midfield four, it’s hard for the one playing on the right to avoid the temptation to come to come inside into a more familiar central position.
Ballymena lacked width in both the league and cup games against Coleraine – a situation exacerbated on Saturday by the loss through injury of Ally Teggart in the warm-up.
How Ballymena will look forward to the return from suspension of David Cushley – a player who can enthral and infuriate in equal measure but one whose name would always be on the teamsheet when available – this weekend.
Up front, the partnership of January signings Shane Dolan and Gary Liggett shows little sign of cohesion – the only new thing I noticed on Saturday was that Dolan is pretty useful in the air as he won a number of knockdowns from an increasingly regular supply of long balls played forward from the back, rather than his real strength of having the ball at his feet, while Liggett’s influence thus far has been fairly minimal.
With five games to go until the league ‘split’, Ballymena are eight points behind sixth-placed Glentoran – a gap which could widen to 11 if Glentoran win a game in hand against Dungannon Swifts.
It’s a poor end to what, in America, might be deemed the ‘regular season’ which had started so well for United and which showed genuine promise of challenging for a place in the upper half.
Sadly, United’s form has dipped since that bright opening and it seems that spending the last month of the season facing the league’s also-rans is once again to be United’s fate.
* Follow Ballymena Times Sports Editor Stephen Alexander on Twitter (@Stephen_Bmena)