Opinion: A year on, cup final defeat now looks even costlier for United

One year on, the full ramifications of Ballymena United's Irish Cup final defeat by Glenavon last season are still being felt.
One year on, the full ramifications of Ballymena United's Irish Cup final defeat by Glenavon last season are still being felt.

It’s strange the unusual things that stick in your mind sometimes.

This time a year ago, we were all looking forward to the Irish Cup final - a day which ultimately ended in disappointment.

As the minutes ticked away towards the final whistle, it wasn’t the fact that Ballymena were going to miss out on landing the biggest knockout silverware available to them for the first time in a quarter of a century that was occupying my mind.

Instead, all I could think was: “This defeat is going to prove very costly for Ballymena further down the line.”

It was a toss-of-a-coin final, a genuine 50/50 match-up between two clubs who desperately needed cup success after years of mid-table mediocrity.

The feeling was that the cup win might well provide the financial launchpad for a sustained push for the top six for the winners, while the losers would have to continue to suffer the drudgery of the bottom six.

And so it has proved with Glenavon using their European money to bolster their squad for this season, where they finished an excellent third.

Up until recent years, I always had the impression - rightly or wrongly - that Irish League clubs viewed European qualification as a bit of a bonus - some half-decent prize money, a trip away for a spot of team bonding but with no real expectation of actually winning the tie

The real game-changer, however, has come in the form of vastly increased prize money from UEFA for competing clubs.

I have no idea of the annual running cost of a top-end Irish League club, but you don’t have to be a professor of economics to suggest that 200,000 Euro - the prize for simply qualifying for the Europa League - would make life a darn sight easier, while the minimum 450,000 Euro Crusaders will receive for competing in the Champions League qualifying round is mind-blowing, in Irish League terms.

Ballymena don’t have the Irish Cup final to look forward to this year, but the outcome of the Oval showdown might well have a big impact upon United’s hopes of making that top six breakthrough next season.

To be blunt about, it five of next season’s top six places in the Danske Bank Premiership will be filled by Crusaders, Linfield, Cliftonville, Portadown and Glenavon.

Of this season’s top six, if Glentoran - the side that Ballymena are arguably closest to challenging - are triumphant in the cup final, even allowing for the fact that a large part of their winnings will go towards their highly-publicised debts, they might still have enough to add to their playing budget that will keep Ballymena at bay.

Finally, thanks for reading this column throughout the season. I hope you have an enjoyable summer and return ready for another season of highs and lows at the Showgrounds.

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