Opinion: United must batten down the hatches to claim cup glory

Ballymena United's players mob Allan jenkins after his late equaliser at Shamrock Park. Picture: Pacemaker Press
Ballymena United's players mob Allan jenkins after his late equaliser at Shamrock Park. Picture: Pacemaker Press

The more I thought about it on the way home from Portadown on Saturday, the more absurd the idea started to become.

Given how rare an occurrence it must be for Portadown to concede five goals in a game at Shamrock Park, surely only Ballymena United could achieve that feat and STILL not claim three points!

Ballymena keeper Stuart Addis punches clear. Picture: Pacemaker Press.

Ballymena keeper Stuart Addis punches clear. Picture: Pacemaker Press.

The day began with doubts as to whether the game would take place at all.

If truth be told, many Ballymena supporters - and possibly Glenn Ferguson as well - wouldn’t have been overly sorry if that had been the case.

After all, the risk of picking up injuries and possibly a red card on a surface that was never going to be easy to play on, was a headache that Ferguson and Ballymena could have done without.

In the end, though, thank goodness the fixture did go ahead because it was a game that will be talked about for years to come.

In terms of quality it wasn’t, in my view at least, particularly good but in terms of entertainment value, it was completely off the scale.

On arriving at Shamrock Park, I took one look at the pitch as the sides were warming up and thought to myself ‘there will be goals here’.

Not, perhaps, the avalanche that followed but it was certainly a surface that was conducive to mistakes.

A good example was Portadown’s fourth goal where Tony Kane’s slip - literally - allowed Gary Twigg an extra split second to make his mind up to go for goal, whereas Kane, without the slip, might have forced the striker wider or perhaps even got a block in.

Glenn Ferguson likened it afterwards to Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United side of the 1990s - an irresistible force going forward but when defending, you’re almost peeking out between your fingers when Ballymena are defending at present, to see if the danger has gone away yet.

The stats outlining the flow of goals against United this season are damning when you consider how much of a better position the Sky Blues would be in.

Saturday was the ninth occasion in league and cup matches this season where Ballymena have scored at least two goals and not gone on to win the game.

It was also the ninth time in the league that United have conceded at least three goals - that’s just over one-third of Ballymena’s league games so far!

You’ve got to hand it to Ballymena for coming back from the position that they did, having trailed by two goals on three different occasions.

To rescue a point from a position seemingly as hopeless as Ballymena’s with six minutes left felt like winning the game but amid the back-pats, there are still plenty of areas for concern.

Ballymena are simply unable to stop the flow of goals against them and Portadown, like Glenavon two weeks earlier, cruelly exposed United defensive deficiencies, which have been exacerbated even more with the switch in formation to accommodate the arrival of Gary McCutcheon.

His ineligibility for Saturday’s final will force Ferguson into a re-think and it will be interesting to see if the manager reverts back to 4-4-2 and recalls wingers Ally Teggart and Neal Gawley, who have been benched in recent weeks.

The biggest difficulty for Ballymena is who will play the more defensive midfield role. You want to see Allan Jenkins marauding into the opposition penalty area, his equalising goal in Saturday’s game being a prime example.

Similarly, you want to see Gary Thompson’s industry in the middle of the park getting him into goalscoring areas so it’s not difficult to see why many people think those two players can’t play together, in the same way that people used to say that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard couldn’t line up alongside each other for England.

Might Ferguson take the risk of pitching Jim Ervin straight into the hustle and bustle of a cup final with little more than 45 minutes of senior football from two substitute appearances under his belt on his return from cruciate knee ligament damage, thereby pushing Tony Kane into midfield?

There’s no doubt that whoever plays in that position is a key call for Ferguson because, make no mistake, Cliftonville have Ballymena’s number and know exactly where their weakness is. One of those heavy scorelines could be called a freak result but when it has happened so often over the past five years, the Reds know exactly how to damage United. The fact that virtually all of the seven goals at Solitude in November came through the middle illustrates that.

A teatime kick-off at a freezing cold Winsdor Park in late January is unlikely to engender the same ‘merry month of May’ feelgood factor among United’s casual support but there is still enough interest for United to take a healty crowd to Saturday’s final.

Let’s hope they can see a performance to match from their heroes.

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