Shield success a welcome high for Ballymena after a generation of lows

Davy Munster (far right) watches as his neatly-placed header finds the top corner in last week's County Antrim Shield final. Picture: Press Eye.
Davy Munster (far right) watches as his neatly-placed header finds the top corner in last week's County Antrim Shield final. Picture: Press Eye.

WITH one swing of his right boot, Alan Davidson ended 23 years of failure and disappointment for Ballymena United fans last Tuesday night.

The outpouring of emotion as Davidson tucked away the winning penalty in the County Antrim Shield final shootout win over Linfield was extraordinary to watch.

To watch the reactions of supporters of all age ranges as United ended their 23-year trophy drought was a fascinating study – from the ‘youngsters’ witnessing their first trophy success to those who had seen it before but could scarcely remember the last one!

The irony of Davidson – the player who inadvertently found himself at the centre of the eligibility issue which saw Ballymena booted out of the Irish Cup just eight months ago – being the man to seal the silverware won’t have been lost on people either.

The calm disposition displayed by the midfielder as he prepared to take the crucial kick was in contrast to that of the fans, some of whom could barely watch.

Twenty-three years has been a long time to wait for success and there are parallels between this side and the one which landed United’s last major success, the Irish Cup win in 1989.

Yes, there were sprinklings of quality in both teams but, by and large, both this side and the 1989 version based their success around being functional and hard-working, once again proving that while it takes a really good, consistent team to achieve success over the marathon of a league campaign, success in a knockout competition shouldn’t be beyond most teams at some stage, if good fortune is on their side.

The level of Ballymena’s support at the Oval was staggering and, for once, the team didn’t let them down on the big occasion, as has so often been the case over the years.

I would, however, reserve special praise for the ‘diehards’, the faces who I would see home and away every week, through the thin and thinner which Ballymena have endured over the past two decades.

My mind was awash with all sort of memories from that period, both from my time as a supporter and also from my capacity of a journalist covering games.

I couldn’t help but think of events like cup humiliations at the hands of the likes of Tobermore United, Brantwood and, most infamously of all, Kilmore Rec; to Irish Cup disqualification no later than this very calendar year; to racism rows which dragged the club’s name through the gutter – all things which made you think ‘what is the point?’.

You think back to things like rushing home from work to head out the door to somewhere like Newry or Omagh, knowing fine well that you would be watching a Ballymena defeat but you still went, whether out of a misguided sense of loyalty or the fear that you might actually miss something positive if and when it eventually did happen.

Reading through individual accounts on internet forums of what Tuesday night’s success meant to people would have brought a tear to a glass eye as people recounted their own stories and dedicated the victory to long-standing United fans who, sadly, are no longer with us.

Those who do remain deserve nothing but the highest praise because, at a time when Irish League attendances are dropping as people favour other means of spending their hard-earned money, there are plenty of people still connected with the club, whether as supporters, officials or sponsors, who will rightfully have revelled in Tuesday night’s success.

Fast forward a few days and we were back to the sight of Ballymena fans trudging dejectedly out of a ground following a disappointing defeat. It in many ways encapsulated what it is to be a Ballymena United supporter.

Sure you wouldn’t have it any other way!

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