Fat lady clearing her throat for end of United’s season
IF the proverbial fat lady has not yet sung to denote the end of Ballymena United’s season, then she has certainly begun to clear her throat.
I’ll dispense with the inevitable “until it’s mathematically impossible...” soundbites and suggest that, no matter how unpalatable it might sound, referee David Malcolm’s final whistle in Saturday’s thrilling clash with Coleraine not only brought an end to United’s Irish Cup dream, it also brought the Sky Blues’ campaign to a shuddering halt, with a top six finish in the league looking nigh on impossible, barring the sort of results over the next six weeks which would be more in keeping with a title-winning team.
It was a cup exit, the nature of which had Ballymena United inscribed through it like letters through a stick of seaside rock.
Even battle-hardened Ballymena fans, accustomed to hope being temporarily put in front of them by their team before being cruelly snatched away, could barely believe what they were seeing as David Scullion notched Coleraine’s winner with 20 seconds left, just over a minute after Gary Liggett’s first Ballymena goal looked to have earned United a replay.
The truth is, a draw would have been flattering to the Sky Blues, who were once again second best to the bitter rivals for much of the game.
Saturday wasn’t a game like the Boxing Day encounter where Dwayne Nelson repelled wave after wave of attacks and prevented United from a right walloping.
But once Coleraine cancelled out Gavin Taggart’s freakish opening goal, Stephen Lowry – surely the most improved player in the Irish League in recent seasons if his unimpressive spell at Ballymena is the benchmark – began to pull the strings and the Bannsiders began to take advantage of United’s lack of a recognised right-sided midfielder, leaving right-back Tony Kane hopelessly exposed on that side of the field.
At the other end of the pitch, the newly-formed attacking partnership of Shane Dolan and Gary Liggett continues to burn slowly rather than explode into life, while the quick-thinking – and feet – of Coleraine’s central midfielders continues to make United’s players look slow and cumbersome in that area.
The reality is that while the margin of defeat for United in the sides’ three meetings has been reduced by a goal on each occasion, Ballymena remain some distance off competing with their nearest and dearest, while Coleraine themselves remain some distance off the league’s top sides – which puts into context how far off that mark Ballymena are.
The sides clash again in the league this Saturday when defeat will almost certainly condemn Ballymena to the bottom six for a fifth successive year.
But, given that this game is the less important of the two for Ballymena, who would be surprised if that turned out to be the one which United win?
* Follow Ballymena Times Sports Editor Stephen Alexander on Twitter (@Stephen_Bmena)