Few players on either side will be more motivated for Saturday’s WASP Solutions League Cup final than Gary Thompson.
The midfielder’s Irish Cup final dream last May turned into a nightmare when he was sent off in the first half of the showpiece final with Glenavon.
Referee Raymond Crangle’s controversial decision was widely criticised by many observers and Thompson admitted it had a devastating effect on him for some time afterwards.
“It still gets talked about now and again by friends and people at work but for me it has been and gone.
“Obviously it wasn’t a nice thing to happen in an Irish Cup final and the fact it was the last game of the season meant I had all summer to reflect on it.
“To add insult to injury, I got a three game ban which kept me out at the start of this season and the team was doing so well at that stage that I couldn’t get back in.
“When I did, I picked up an injury so it has been a really stop-start, frustrating season for me.”
By a remarkable coincidence, Belfast official Crangle will also be the man in the middle for this Saturday’s encounter.
But Thompson insists: “We’ve had Raymond referee us a couple of time this season and there has been absolutely no problem.
“He made the call as he saw it in the Irish Cup final and there are no hard feelings on my part.”
Finals are becoming commonplace for the 24-year-old, despite having spent most of his career at clubs not traditionally associated with success.
“This will be my fourth final in five seasons of playing in the Irish League with Distillery and Ballymena.
“People might be surprised at that but I genuinely expected when I signed for Ballymena that we would be challenging for trophies.
“It’s great that we have reached three finals in three seasons, not just for the players and staff but for the supporters and everyone who works so hard behind the scenes.”
Thompson is full of praise for the achievements of Saturday’s opponents Cliftonville, who have established themselves as the country’s dominant team over the past two seasons.
“They are a top, top team. They maybe miss Liam Boyce a bit which is understandable and their form has been a bit up and down but they still have great players and Joe Gormley is a goal machine.
“In the games we played against them this season, barring half an hour at Solitude, we have competed with them and anything can happen in a cup final.”
Thompson believes that victory on Saturday would provide a perfect springboard for the second half of the season, both for the club and for himself personally.
“I’ve been lucky enough over the last couple of years to have had a good run of games which, as a midfielder, I think you need.
“It’s been frustrating for me this year with injuries and knocks but fortunately enough, I’ve got back into the reckoning in recent weeks and I feel great now and hopefully I can get a chance to show that in the final.
“I don’t want to be remembered for being sent off in an Irish Cup final so hopefully the experience of this final will be a more positive one!” laughs Thompson.