Opinion: Enjoy Shevlin while you can - bigger things may lie in store

PACEMAKER BELFAST  05/09/2015'Glentoran v Ballymena Danske Bank Premiership'Glentoran's Aaron Hogg and Ballymena's Matthew Tipton pictured in action during todays game at the Oval in Belfast.'Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 05/09/2015'Glentoran v Ballymena Danske Bank Premiership'Glentoran's Aaron Hogg and Ballymena's Matthew Tipton pictured in action during todays game at the Oval in Belfast.'Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

Sometimes you just get the impression that you’re watching someone who is destined for a greater stage than then one they currently grace.

Even in the much-maligned Irish League, there are players whose talent shines through like a beacon.

In recent times, you look at the Cliftonville strikers Liam Boyce and Joe Gormley, who were enough to give Ballymena defenders - and supporters - sleepless nights.

Ballymena occasionally got in on the act as well; I always felt that Michael Smith - now, of course, playing his trade in England with Peterborough United - was a player who could perform at a higher level.

Now, in Matthew Shevlin, Ballymena United once again have such a player.

When Shevlin stepped off the subs’ bench against Ballinamallard last November, a journalistic colleague asked me if I knew much about him.

5th September  2015''Danske Bank Premership  - Glentoran Vs Ballymena.  Ballymena celebrates after scoring to make it 1-2.''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

5th September 2015''Danske Bank Premership - Glentoran Vs Ballymena. Ballymena celebrates after scoring to make it 1-2.''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Years of seeing his goalscoring exploits for Carniny Youth and, more latterly, the youth and reserve teams at Ballymena told me we were dealing with an out-and-out goalscorer.

I mentioned as much to my colleague, casually adding the line ‘it would be some craic if he came on and scored’ as the youngster set foot on the pitch, still a month short of his 16th birthday. The rest, as they say, is history.

But it wasn’t solely that first touch in Irish League football that caught my eye with the player during his sporadic appearances towards the end of last season.

In each of those games, he had chances to score. Even the greatest players in the world don’t convert every chance they get but it was suggestive of a player who has that golden ability to get himself into goalscoring situations.

5th September  2015''Danske Bank Premership  - Glentoran Vs Ballymena.  Ballymena's Matthew Tipton celebrates after scoring to make it 1-2.''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

5th September 2015''Danske Bank Premership - Glentoran Vs Ballymena. Ballymena's Matthew Tipton celebrates after scoring to make it 1-2.''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

It was no great surprise when manager Glenn Ferguson promoted Shevlin to his senior panel during the summer. Even allowing for his heroics in County Antrim’s famous Milk Cup triumph, it was expected that he would once again learn his trade in the reserves, with occasional outings in the first team to aid his development.

Who would have thought that just a month into the campaign, Shevlin would have become the focal point of Ballymena’s attack, with even last season’s top scorer Matthew Tipton playing a more withdrawn role to accommodate the teenager.

Shevlin’s impact has, of course, been more pronounced, coming as it has in the middle of United’s wretched start to the campaign. He was the one real glimmer of hope among the despondency of the early weeks of the season.

Coincidentally, and through no fault of his, he has also burst on the scene at a time when Ballymena fans have craved a homegrown talent, given the summer departures of Mark Surgenor and Youth Academy graduate Aaron Stewart.

It was Shevlin’s introduction from the bench that provided the spark to spare United from potential League Cup humiliation at Moyola Park in midweek so it was no surprise to see him in the starting line-up at the Oval.

I was still describing the Glens’ early goal on our live feed when I glanced up to see Jim Ervin thread a through ball to Shevlin who, without even pausing to think, instinctively rounded goalkeeper Aaron Hogg and slotted home an immediate equaliser.

It was a moment in which you realised he had really arrived on the Irish League stage - the type of finish you would associate from a striker 10 years his senior.

But it’s not just his ability to create and convert chances that catches the eye; his hold-up play again shows an intelligence that belies his years while his youthful exuberance to chase down seemingly lost causes makes him a nightmare for dithering defenders.

He once again stood out in an impressive Ballymena performance which underlined the growing feeling that United’s calamitous start to the season is at an end.

Ballymena, as you would expect, are doing everything in their power to protect the player. Ferguson, while happy to extol the player’s virtues to the media, is yet to make Shevlin available for interview. There’s no issue with that; while he might play like a seasoned professional, you have to remember that, as a 16-year-old, he is, in the eyes of the law, a child.

But while he continues to do his talking on the pitch, the harder it is going to be for Ballymena to downplay the increasing hype surrounding the player.

With reports of cross-channel interest already surfacing, Ballymena fans might be as well to savour what they have in front of them while it is there.