Belfast Telegraph

Ballymena Utd boss Glenn Ferguson says side are serious contenders for Danske Bank Premiership Crown

Ferguson talks up United's chances after last gasp leveller eases spot-kick injustice

By Billy Weir

Glenn Ferguson says that his Ballymena United side are realistic contenders for the Danske Bank Premiership crown.

Certainly if character and a never-say-die attitude are a prerequisite to be champions, the Sky Blues had them in spades at the weekend as Allan Jenkins came off the bench to score a last-gasp equaliser against Cliftonville and to right what Ferguson thought was a massive wrong.

It could have been even better for United and victory looked to be there for the taking when Matthew Tipton's attempt to surge past Ryan Catney in the box saw the Reds' midfielder handle the ball only for referee Colin Burns ignore his assistant's clear signal for a penalty kick.

United players surrounded the man in the middle but, as they protested, Cliftonville broke to the other end and in the flash of an eye Chris Curran's shot took a deflection off Stephen McBride and wrong-footed goalkeeper Dwayne Nelson.

It would be a shame and an insult to both teams to concentrate solely on the officials and Saturday's team were just the latest of a far too regular occurrence of post-match comment dominated by decisions – or a lack of them.

It happens too often to be a coincidence and the impression of 'oh well, they're the best we've got, get on with it' is a kick in the teeth for players, managers and fans who deserve so much better.

The Sky Blues had taken a first half lead through Tipton, who could have been red-carded for an errant elbow, unintentional or not, on Jude Winchester.

Curran's goal was a slap in the face for United and Winchester seemed to have gained some personal justice with an 89th minute thunderbolt only for Jenkins' strike from the edge of the box moments later.

"From 1-0 up to one-each, I'd be confident we'd have scored the penalty and been 2-0 up with 15 or 20 minutes to go and I'd have been pretty confident the game would have been dead and buried," fumed Ferguson.

"They would have had to come out and we'd have had more chances of getting another one but it wasn't to be."

However, the character they showed to hit back for a share of the spoils is symptomatic of why United may just yet be the season's surprise packets.

"We're still up in the mix and I used the analogy of a small team coming here and getting a 1-0 lead and having something to hold onto.

"No-one expects us to be up at the top of the league, so every game we're there we're challenging the players that you've something to hang onto so put on a performance to get points to stay up there.

"We have our own expectations now that we have a squad that can compete with any team on any given day, but can we do it consistently? If we keep them fit and keep the squad that we have available and they believe in themselves, why not?

"We believe that we're doing a job that will keep them fit and we have learnt a lot from winning the County Antrim Shield and then we maybe took our eye off the ball. I was inexperienced and had never been in that position before but we've certainly learnt from that.

"If you think back to two years ago, Cliftonville beat us 8-0 here, so how far have we come that we're disappointed we haven't won the game? Players have started to believe in themselves."

And that's exactly the message Tommy Breslin has for his stuttering side. The highs of two magnificent title triumphs have been replaced by the relative lows of sixth spot in the table as players and manager alike scratch their heads as to just what is the problem.

"It's not actually concern, it's frustration because I know the quality we have," he explained.

"There's nobody stepping out and saying 'I deserve to be in this team' and one week somebody will be good and others won't. It's very lacklustre, we've tested their fitness and their fitness is better than last year's, so it has to be an attitude problem or a confidence issue.

"If it is a confidence issue I don't know why because we're 10 games in and we've won a couple and drawn most of the rest. Football is there to be enjoyed but the longer it goes on, then you feel you have to make changes and then the team becomes unstable and people are coming in and out and that creates uncertainty.

"It upsets you when you know what people are capable of, their performance levels and in a number of cases they were falling way below them," he added.

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