Opinion: Plenty still at stake for United in a season salvaged by Shield success

Ballymena United's players celebrate after winning the County Antrim Shield. Picture: Press Eye.
Ballymena United's players celebrate after winning the County Antrim Shield. Picture: Press Eye.

Even for a season with as many ups and downs as this one, Ballymena United’s County Antrim Shield win really is something of a curve ball.

Few but the bravest or most foolhardy Ballymena fans would have suggested that a campaign which has spluttered along in mediocre fashion would end with United lifting the first senior silverware of the Irish League season.

Ferguson was absolutely spot on with his assertion that last week’s triumph was a greater achievement than the Shield success of 2012.

There was an extra round of the competition to negotiate for a start, while few would suggest that a team that beats both Crusaders and Linfield along the way wouldn’t deserve to lift the silverware.

Throw in the fact that they had to win the final by beating their opponents at their own home ground and you can see there’s a definite sense of achievement this time around.

Some people may have misconstrued my comments a couple of weeks ago that winning the Irish Cup tie against Linfield was more important for Ballymena as me being dismissive of the County Antrim Shield. Not so.

Paddy McNally celebrates after putting Ballymena United ahead in the County Antrim Shield final.

Paddy McNally celebrates after putting Ballymena United ahead in the County Antrim Shield final.

Trust me, Ballymena don’t win silverware with the sort of regularity that means you can treat particular competitions with disdain.

The point remains as valid now, however, as it was a couple of weeks ago - it’s going to take an Irish Cup success and the European riches that come with it to give Ballymena the turbo boost they need to be a major player in Irish League circles.

United fans who follow their team around the country week in, week in deserve to revel in the success of a team that is rarely among the silverware.

But I have yet to meet anyone this time around who isn’t able to give last week’s triumph a much greater sense of perspective than three years ago, when the Shield was treated with the reverence of a World Cup win.

Delight is etched on Allan Jenkins' face as he lifts the trophy with skipper Jim Ervin.

Delight is etched on Allan Jenkins' face as he lifts the trophy with skipper Jim Ervin.

That goes right down to the players. They celebrated wildly on the pitch in front of their supporters but when I visited the dressing room a short time afterwards, the trophy sat virtually ignored on the treatment table in the middle of the room, with players generally either going to or from the shower or else scouring their phones for messages of congratulations - a stark contrast to the raucous post-match scenes in the dressing room at the Oval in November 2012.

Ballymena’s nosedive after that last triumph was something that got under manager Glenn Ferguson’s skin long after the 2012-13 campaign had finished.

Indeed, I’m led to believe that by the time I reached the dressing room last Tuesday night, the message had already been delivered to the players about their responsibilities for the remainder of this campaign.

That in itself isn’t going to be easy with, on the face of it, little meaningful to play for in the coming weeks. I suspect Ballymena fans are going to find their team’s non-involvement on Irish Cup Saturdays a particular downer after the excitement of runs to the latter stages of the competition in recent seasons.

Yes, you’ve still got to set targets and Ballymena’s pursuit of a flagging Portadown side - weakened by the departure of striker Darren Murray - will be an intriguing sub-plot in the race for seventh place and the potential for European qualification via a ludicrous play-off system, a topic I shall address in the coming weeks.

Further down the line, United’s Shield win should quell at least some of the dissention that has hung over the Showgrounds this season and the remaining games should give Ferguson an opportunity to start making plans for next season, by which stage he will be closing in on being the club’s longest-serving manager.