Opinion: Forget the Shield - Irish Cup clash is THE big game

Ballymena United's players and supporters celebrate Allan Jenkins' late winner at Portadown. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Ballymena United's players and supporters celebrate Allan Jenkins' late winner at Portadown. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press

I was asked an interesting question recently ahead of what could undoubtedly be the defining week in Ballymena United’s season.

If you could be guaranteed one Ballymena United victory from the forthcoming clashes with Linfield in the Tennent’s Irish Cup tie and the Toals County Antrim Shield final, which would I choose.

My response was as instant as it was surprising to the person who had asked me.

Despite being potentially just 90 minutes away from bringing silverware back to Ballymena, I would forego that if it meant United went on to win the Irish CUp this season.

That might seem like a tall order, given that, even if Ballymena progress at Linfield’s expense this Saturday, there would still be four more hurdles to overcome before the trophy would be secured

As much as it would be fantastic to see the County Antrim Shield trophy return to Ballymena for the second time in just over three years, it would only result in short-term gain.

It would have little impact in the long run on United’s finances or ability to attract better players.

The only way Ballymena will be able to lift themselves from mid-table mediocrity is with the financial injection that European qualification via an Irish Cup triumph would bring.

That boat was missed in 2014 when the Sky Blues lost to Glenavon in the final and the repercussions of that for both clubs are clearly visible when you look at their performance since then.

Given that Ballymena have consistently been unable to make the top six, far less the European qualifying spots, in the league, the Irish Cup now takes on much more significance for the Showgrounds club each year than simply winning a trophy.

That thought should be paramount in the minds of the club’s players, staff and officials as they prepare for Saturday’s trip to the National Stadium - any thoughts of the Shield should be put on the backburner until after that.

Of course, the question mentioned at the start of this article was purely a theoretical one - there is absolutely no guarantee of a Ballymena victory in either of the cup clashes, nor the forthcoming league meeting between the sides on January 23, where the outcome is unlikely to have a significant bearing on Ballymena’s season.

The task is made harder by the fact that Linfield appear to be finding a bit of form after a sticky start to David Healy’s managerial career - Friday’s win over champions Crusaders was a marker for the Blues.

But at least United can enter this Saturday’s Irish Cup clash with renewed optimism off the back of an impressive New Year’s Day result of their own at Portadown.

Even for a fixture that rarely falls into the run-of-the-mill category, it was a rip-roaring encounter in the most testing of conditions and a very welcome victory for Ballymena - even if they did have to score four times to secure it!

It wasn’t so much the number of Ballymena’s goals that caught the eye so much as the quality of them, with some high class finishes following eye-catching build-up.

IT certainly gave the Ballymena supporters who made the trip and who sat through miserable conditions some reward for their endeavours and Allan Jenkins rifling home a shot into the roof of the net with a minute left in front of the travelling support is likely to be an indelible image of the season for United’s fans.

Hopefully there may still be a few more of those type of moments still to come in what has been a rollercoaster season so far - an Irish CUp victory this weekend would certainly go a long way towards making it a happy new year.