Cup clash can make or break United’s season

Ballymena United's players celebrate David Cushley's equaliser in Saturday's 2-2 draw at Linfield. Picture: Press Eye.
Ballymena United's players celebrate David Cushley's equaliser in Saturday's 2-2 draw at Linfield. Picture: Press Eye.

IT’S difficult to stress exactly how important this weekend will be in the context of Ballymena United’s season.

Certainly if it ain’t ‘win or bust’, it’s as close to that scenario as you’re likely to get!

The weather has already put paid to United’s hopes of claiming three more points in their increasingly unlikely pursuit of a top six place when the league ‘splits’ next month, after Tuesday night’s game against Donegal Celtic was called off just an hour before kick-off.

Having said that, there was almost a sense of wanting that game to be out of the way in any event, a feeling that it was a mere irritation ahead of the real business of the week.

Any meeting with Coleraine is always one to be savoured – notwithstanding Ballymena’s cringeworthy record in ‘derby’ meetings in recent seasons.

But throw in the fact that it’s an Irish Cup meeting – and the first time the sides have met in the premier knockout competition for 13 years – and the hype factor goes into overdrive.

Like it or not, the brutal truth for many provincial clubs like Ballymena and Coleraine and the Irish Cup represents their only realistic chance of qualifying for Europe; a look at the league table over recent seasons indicates quite clearly that neither club has the resources to put in a sustained challenge at the top end of the table over the marathon of a league campaign.

It’s always interesting when the draw for a knockout competition throws up an mouth-watering draw like this one but a lot can change between when the numbers are drawn out of the hat and when they go head-to-head on the field.

After having sneaked, Dick Turpin-style, past Warrenpoint in the last round, Glenn Ferguson’s post-match press conference was temporarily suspended as members of the Press joined the manager, his coaching staff and those players who hadn’t gone home in the United dressing room.

When United’s fate was known, I glanced across to where the manager was sitting and when he caught my eye, there was a wry smile on his face.

The players reacted in different ways, with many exchanging knowing glances and quietly reflecting on the task ahead, to Tony Kane, whose rip-roaring comments suggested he would have been happy to play the fixture there and then!

At that stage, Coleraine would have been heavy favourites but their form has faltered in the subsequent weeks, while Ballymena are gradually showing signs of improvement after a six-week period around the turn of the year when the only thing worse than the results were the performances that accompanied them.

The first thing Ballymena have to do in Saturday’s clash is to COMPETE with Coleraine – something which has rarely happened in meetings over the past three years or so.

After that, it will all come down to what happens on the day; a favourable outcome will keep their season alive, elimination will effectively have Glenn Ferguson – complete with new two-year contract – putting the pen through the column marked ‘short-term objectives’ and focusing on next season.

Finally, a word on the sad passing of Malcolm Brodie. Growing up immersed in newspaper reports, his name was synonymous with local football and you always got a sense if you caught a glimpse of him in the old Showgrounds Press Box that ‘this is a REALLY big match’.

Thankfully the aura that surrounded him soon disappeared when I got to know him in a professional capacity and it was an honour to share various Press Boxes with him and to enjoy his wit and wisdom.

* Follow Ballymena Times Sports Editor Stephen Alexander on Twitter (@Stephen_Bmena)