Opinion: United’s season faces big cup tests in coming weeks

Ballymena United players celebrate Allan Jenkins' winning goal in Saturday's league victory at Ballinamallard. The Scot is again likely to lead the attack in Wednesday's League Cup quarter-final against Coleraine. Picture: Press Eye.
Ballymena United players celebrate Allan Jenkins' winning goal in Saturday's league victory at Ballinamallard. The Scot is again likely to lead the attack in Wednesday's League Cup quarter-final against Coleraine. Picture: Press Eye.

There comes a point in every season where the next few games will go a long way to defining how a team’s season will pan out.

You get the impression that Ballymena United’s campaign has reached that point.

For clubs at the top - and indeed bottom - end of the table, it may not arrive until the second half of the season, as the business end of the league campaign approaches.

Unsurprisingly, and frustratingly, Ballymena find themselves somewhere in the middle of that scenario in yet another stop-start league campaign which again sees some distance between the Sky Blues and the struggling teams below them, but equally, a fair bit of distance between United and that massively over-hyped sixth place in the table.

It was fairly clear from early on that United’s season would hinge upon their performance in the knockout competitions and while it has been so far, so good, that particular aspect is going to come into fairly sharp focus in the short term, with Wednesday night’s League Cup quarter-final against Coleraine followed less than a fortnight later by another ‘derby’ clash, this time with Larne in the County Antrim Shield semi-final.

Win both - or at least one - and there is something for the players - and supporters - to get excited about as the season enters its second half. Lose both and it could be a very bleak mid-winter indeed.

The Coleraine game is a fascinating match-up which should draw a bumper crowd. Glenn Ferguson has already stated quite clearly that the Bannsiders are favourites going into the game and for once, this isn’t the usual sort of managerial rhetoric.

Coleraine’s revival this season has been as stunning as it has been surprising. Would they have achieved the same results under a new manager? We’ll never know the answer because the Bannsiders Board showed patience in sticking with Oran Kearney in the face of some fairly fierce opposition by supporters - food for thought for Ferguson’s detractors at Ballymena, perhaps?

And then of course there’s the added intrigue surrounding the emergence of James McLaughlin as a Premiership standard striker.

A player who made such a minimal impact in his short time at Ballymena, when plucked from obscurity by Roy Walker, that one Ballymena fan said to me the other day, completely straight-faced: “We could do with finding a boy like that.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that not only had we found a ‘boy like that’, we had found the very player himself!

You’ve got to hand it to Kearney, however, for giving the player a second chance on the big stage and, even more so, McLaughlin himself for grabbing it with both hands.

Ballymena’s own attacking options will be blunted further by the loss through suspension of David Cushley but it’s still a fixture that too many people would make a confident prediction about.