Opinion: Farewell to Solitude as focus switches to crunch cup tie

Paddy McNally was an impressive performer in Ballymena United's weekend defeat at Solitude. Picture: Press Eye.
Paddy McNally was an impressive performer in Ballymena United's weekend defeat at Solitude. Picture: Press Eye.

If there’s one solace from Ballymena United’s five largely fruitless trips to Solitude this season, it’s that they won the one that mattered most.

Yes, people might argue that winning the Shield game would have secured another cup final spot, while others will claim that league points are your bread and butter.

My own view is that, had United won one of their league games at the north Belfast venue, it would not have had the same defining impact as the win earlier this month that keeps alive their hopes of Irish Cup glory.

Had that victory, in the most dramatic of circumstances, not occurred, we wouldn’t be talking about this weekend’s visit to Harland & Wolff Welders - a game which will either prolong Ballymena’s season into next month or else kill it stone dead.

It was always going to be a big ask for Saturday’s seventh meeting of the season between the sides to meet the same levels of drama and goals as many of the other tussles. Indeed, for much of it, it looked as though it might finish in the most unlikely of scorelines in a Ballymena game this season - a scoreless draw.

One positive that Glenn Ferguson will take is that United looked much more solid defensively than in some other games against the Reds.

Paddy McNally brings pace to Ballymena’s backline, along with a willingness to put the ball into the car park rather than attempting to play out of areas of danger, while behind him, Tim Allen’s presence in goal has taken a lot of pressure off the back four.

That increased assurance will be vital for United is Saturday’s make-or-break trip to the Welders. One factor which Ballymena should have in their favour is the experience of having travelled to Saturday’s venue in the same competition last season, when they were given the most almighty scare before earning a 2-2 draw.

And it wasn’t simply a case of Welders earning a draw to then crumble in the replay - they were every bit as stubborn and awkward in the second instalment, where Gary Thompson’s goal eventually took Ballymena through.

The Welders were already going to be without two of their most experienced players in David Rainey and Philip Simpson through suspension and they will be joined on the sidelines by Dan McMurray - Ballymena fans might remember him as the long-haired defender who performed so solidly in both games last season - after his red card at the weekend.

They might not be up against a full-strength Welders side, but United will still need to overcome a number of other variables, not least the infamous Tillysburn Park pitch, with its contours more in keeping with the humps and hollows of a golf fairway.

Even allowing for that, Ballymena will still be expected to progress to the last four - if they do, what odds on the semi-final ending up being played at Solitude!