Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

Touchline bans are not worth a damn

Ballymena United boss Tommy Wright is expecting his side to be in another Irish Cup dogfight tonight when they clash with Newry City in their replay
Ballymena United boss Tommy Wright is expecting his side to be in another Irish Cup dogfight tonight when they clash with Newry City in their replay

I have a shocking confession to make . . . I have never paid to get into Ballymena Showgrounds. There, I've said it. The secret's out. I can't take it back.

Not a penny, not ever. Yet I've been there hundreds of times.

It started off when I was very young, and my local football heroes were the likes of Jimmy Martin, Sammy Frickleton and Quinten McFall from the Ballymena United team of the early Seventies.

Naturally I wanted to see them in every home game but money was tight. Luckily for me, my mate lived in a house that backed onto a far-off corner of the Showgrounds, and all we had to do was climb onto his dad's garden shed and carefully ease ourselves down the other side of the perimeter fence. Job done.

And this went on for a few years - until my hometown club signed me up as a young player. No more sneaking over the fence now, no sir.

I would be walking in through the front gate with my head held high, and club officials greeting me, and feeling very important indeed. And, of course, not having to pay anything.

Well, I never did make much of an impression on the pitch at Ballymena, eventually deciding - or, rather, having it decided for me - that it might be a better idea to write about the game rather than attempt to play it.

So the Irish League sent me a press pass, meaning that I could get into any local football ground - including, of course Ballymena Showgrounds - for diddly squat.

Which of course is more than can be said of Tommy Wright. For the next six home games, there's no way he's getting into the place - a rather awkward development, saying as he's currently the Ballymena United manager.

But Tommy got involved in a bit of argy-bargy with Lisburn Distillery boss Paul Kirk at the end of a game last month and things got very ugly with spectators weighing in.

Several missiles - including, rather bizarrely, a leg of lamb - were thrown during the melee, and whoever went to the butcher's before going to the Showgrounds made sure that the mini-riot would attract maximum coverage in the press.

I doubt if too many people will be talking about the 'leg of lamb game' for long, for there was enough negative publicity at the time to rile the Irish FA.

And last week they hit both Wright and Kirk with six-match stadium bans, as well as fines.

The punishment had many observers - and Tommy Wright himself - busy Googling on the internet to find out if any other manager in world football had ever been hit with a similar ban. Apparently, none were found.

Normally an errant manager is punished by a 'touchline ban' meaning that he can still attend the game but can't interfere directly with the team.

This is, of course, a load of old nonsense. Modern communication techniques mean that managers can get any instructions they want down to the bench; the ban is more of a minor inconvenience than a punishment.

And this time the IFA have decided to get tough and show they mean business, so Messrs Wright and Kirk can't come within half a mile of their home stadiums for six matches.

Naturally, they are both highly aggrieved at this development; Wright is threatening legal action to get his punishment overturned while Kirk says he intends to quit his role as chairman of the Irish League managers' forum.

I know both men well from my previous existence as a football correspondent and their angst is understandable, especially with the punishment being so unprecedented.

And of course you could argue that what happened at the Showgrounds that Saturday afternoon proved just how passionate both men are about the local game; is there ever enough of that?

But it still doesn't detract from the fact that the behaviour of the managers that day was totally unacceptable. They got involved in an altercation that threatened to get completely out of control.

As vastly experienced football men, they really have no excuse for that sort of behaviour. And clearly the IFA have decided to make an example of them, and issue a warning to other managers that squaring up to each other in front of fans simply won't be tolerated.

Paul Kirk made the point last week that, technically, the Whites could sack him because the ban means that, for the next few weeks, he is unable to carry out his duties for the club.

True € but they could also have sacked him for his role in the unseemly incident in the first place.

As for Tommy Wright . . . well, it just so happens that my brother owns a house which backs onto the Showgrounds. From one of the upstairs bedrooms, you can see onto the pitch.

Tommy's welcome to come along and use it, and I won't tell anyone.

It may be less than half a mile from the stadium, but I don't think even the IFA can make sitting in a bedroom a punishable offence.

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