Opinion: Can Sky Blues gain financial fast-track from nonsensical play-offs?

Ballymena United's defeat by Ballinamallard on Saturday dented the Sky Blues' hopes of finishing in seventh place. Picture: Press Eye.
Ballymena United's defeat by Ballinamallard on Saturday dented the Sky Blues' hopes of finishing in seventh place. Picture: Press Eye.

Reality may finally have bitten in the David Jeffrey era, there’s still a chance for Ballymena United to finish the season on a high.

Beat Portadown on Saturday and Sky Blues fans might still - incredible as it seems - be checking their passports for a possible, if unlikely, European trip.

I’ve been a big fan of many of the initiatives that the Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) have introduced since they took over the governance of the top three divisions a few seasons back but I can’t warm to this play-off idea at all.

At present there are a yawning 22 points between the team in fourth place - Glenavon sealing third spot at the weekend takes them out of the play-off equation - and the team in seventh - can anyone REALLY say that the latter deserve a chance of what is now - in an era of increased UEFA money - a huge prize, more so than the former?

Don’t get me wrong - I won’t be sitting at the Showgrounds this Saturday willing Portadown to beat Ballymena so that the Sky Blues fail to reach seventh. Quite the opposite - if Ballymena were to finish seventh and then somehow win the play-offs, it would be exactly the financial fast-track that the club needs in order to be able to compete with the clubs above them.

If they do so, they will have done it legally and within the rules that every club knew about before a ball was kicked.

But to have a season’s worth of graft turned a 90 minute showdown is a further example of the Americanisation of sport where all your good work in the regular season can be undone in one afternoon in a one-off game. A sprint, after a marathon.

As a Ballymena fan, my view is probably in the minority on this topic. After all, Ballymena have more to gain than any other club involved in the race for the play-offs, as the club who finished lower than any of the competing teams.

Most Ballymena fans think it’s great that the Sky Blues are in with a shot of reaching Europe, even though they didn’t even finish in the top half of a 12-team league after 33 games. That would be the equivalent of the team in 11th or 12th in the English Premier League getting a chance to usurp the team who finished fifth or sixth - can’t see that one happening any time soon.

It would be interesting to see in the future - if this play-off idea is persisted with - if David Jeffrey can be the manager to finally get Ballymena to compete at the right end of the league table, how Ballymena fans would react if their team had finished third but ran the risk of losing that European slot to a lower-ranked team?

You only have to look at the reaction of relief from Glenavon fans - whose team clinched Europe via finishing third, even before the Irish Cup final - on social media that their season-long slog in the league can’t now be undone by a misplaced pass or a glaring miss in a one-off game.

I fully understand why NIFL introduced the idea, to breathe some life into the bottom six, which is the footballing equivalent of a tumbleweed.

Ballymena know that probably better than any club who have been involved in the bottom six because the Sky Blues have been in it every year since the format was introduced, without actually being at the sharp end of the relegation battle. It has resulted in largely ‘dead rubber’ fixtures, meaningless games which perhaps gave United’s final points tally a slightly inflated look.

One part of the play-off scenario that I’m in full agreement with, however, is that if Dungannon - who will automatically be excluded as they did not apply for a European licence - finish seventh, their place will not automatically go to the eighth placed team.

There’s too much of that goes on in football in this country, clubs profiting from other clubs’ shortcomings, rather than by what the benefiting club has achieved itself.

What part - if any - United play remains to be seen but even if the Sky Blues triumph in the end, I still question the merit of the whole idea.