Opinion: Prize asset’s departure gives fans little reason for new year optimism

Ballymena's David Cushley celebrates after bringing his team level against Coleraine. Picture: Dylan McIlwaine.
Ballymena's David Cushley celebrates after bringing his team level against Coleraine. Picture: Dylan McIlwaine.

Glenn Ferguson notches a notable milestone on New Year’s Eve as he completes four years in charge of Ballymena United.

Given the often trotted-out - and factually inaccurate - suggestion often peddled by people from outside of Ballymena about how often the club likes to change managers, that length of service in charge at the Showgrounds is virtually gold watch material!

But as Ferguson embarks on his fifth year in the job, there is a very real likelihood that it will be his toughest.

Whether expected or otherwise, news of David Cushley’s impending departure in the summer - broken last Tuesday by Times Sport - is another hammer blow in a season that has been a huge disappointment thus far.

We’ll deal with the whys and wherefores of the Cushley move in due course, but in the meantime, Ballymena fans are digesting their side’s miserable Boxing Day showing against Coleraine with the same level of pleasure as someone who thought it seemed a good idea to have that extra slice of turkey the previous day.

It was just such a familiar pattern to the one we’ve seen all season, with Ballymena struggling against any sort of pace, such as that of livewire striker Jamie McGonigle who roamed free in the usual yawning gaps in Ballymena’s rearguard; a bit of magic from Cushley to give United fans some hope, only to see it snatched away once again.

Ballymena United's Stewart Nixon competes against Coleraine's Adam Mullan and Ruaihrdi Higgins. Picture: Dylan McIlwaine.

Ballymena United's Stewart Nixon competes against Coleraine's Adam Mullan and Ruaihrdi Higgins. Picture: Dylan McIlwaine.

Indeed, but for keeper Alan Blayney’s best performance since returning to the side recently, Ballymena’s margin of defeat would have been even greater and the Sky Blues could have faced the prospect of conceding their 50th goal in the league before the end of December.

Ballymena’s defensive deficiencies have been masked - in as much as you can disguise shipping nearly a half century of goals in five months - to an extent by their ability to find the net at the other end, but that has even deserted the Sky Blues in recent games.

They have struggled to create meaningful opening openings against Linfield and Coleraine in recent weeks, with Cushley’s spectacular goals the only thing to cheer.

When you consider that Cushley is currently producing these moments of magic and Ballymena are STILL losing matches, it’s a chilling thought when you consider Ballymena’s prospects minus the services of the winger next season.

No-one should be surprised at Cushley’s decision - he’s in his mid-twenties and at a stage of his career where he will be looking to compete for the major honours that Ballymena can only view from afar, like an orphan peeking through a window at a lavish banquet.

Even the pantomime-style release of photos of Cushley signing in a Crusaders shirt while still a Ballymena player won’t create that much rancour among Ballymena fans who are looking at an entirely bigger picture - no pun intended.

There are parallels between Ballymena’s current plight and the situation Ferguson inherited when he was unveiled in December 2011.

Then, it was Gary McCutcheon who was very much United’s talisman, yet within months Ferguson was preparing for the departure of his prize asset. That blow was softened in the summer when Ferguson signed the man who would go on to become the new darling of the Showgrounds faithful - a certain David Cushley.

The manager will have to produce another rabbit out of the hat this coming summer - but given how the landscape of Irish League football has changed and where Ballymena now find themselves, that will be no easy task.