Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Ballymena United boss vows to turn tide against Cliftonville

Dream debut: Michael McLellan celebrates his goal against Portadown with Allan Jenkins
Dream debut: Michael McLellan celebrates his goal against Portadown with Allan Jenkins

Beware of the wounded animal but don't be afraid of it – that's Glenn Ferguson's message to his players today.

It's second against third as Ballymena United play host to champions Cliftonville at Warden Street, and it's fair to say that the teams have a little bit of previous.

In the past two head-to-heads the Sky Blues have shipped in 13 goals against the Reds, failing to register a goal of their own.

The 8-0 reversal last November was the undoubted low spot of Ferguson's reign as United boss while the five goals they conceded at Solitude later in the season were the icing on the cake for the Reds as the long title-countdown party continued.

Not long after that eight-goal hammering came the high spot for Ferguson, the Co. Antrim Shield Final win over Linfield and that just about sums up the Jeykll and Hyde nature of the Sky Blues.

It is shaping up to be a similar tale this time around, the lows of defeats by Glenavon and Ards counter-balanced by the highs of seeing off Crusaders and Portadown.

So, was Spike's Friday night spent gnawing his nails down to the quick? Not a bit of it.

"It's history," he says of the 8-0 drubbing. "Obviously we don't want a repeat of that. But I keep saying if we play the way we did in the second-half (against Portadown) then we're a match for anyone.

"It depends which Cliftonville turn up on the day, because they will be pretty nervous as well because they don't want to be losing three games on the bounce.

"We could be on the end of a backlash or if we go in front early on they could be nervous."

As Ferguson alluded to, defeats by Portadown and Coleraine have rocked the Reds' rampant start to the season.

As a man who knows what it's like to play in a team defending its title, he says he is not surprised that teams are suddenly lifting their game against Tommy Breslin's troops.

"There's no doubt about that. I said it would be interesting to see how they'd cope this year with the tag of champions," he added.

"Everyone wants to beat you, you're a big scalp. Coleraine showed the way to beat them, they out-passed them, worked them, made them make mistakes. We had a man there doing the stats and they gave the ball away 66 times.

"We'll take some knowledge of what Oran (Kearney) did against them and transfer it into our game."

The split personality of the Braidmen came to the fore again on Tuesday night in that success over Portadown.

In the opening 45 minutes they were simply atrocious. If it had been a boxing bout the towel would have been tossed into the ring but whatever Ferguson said at the break was worthy of Angelo Dundee.

After the break it was a different story, Michael McLellan's introduction was an inspirational move; a man with a point to prove to the previous employer who had dispensed with his services at the weekend, proving his point emphatically.

He scored one and was brought down for the penalty that turned the game completely on its head, and the former Preston North End player could earn himself a starting berth against the Reds.

Ferguson missed out on McLellan last year after the striker had turned out for the Sky Blues in pre-season, but hopes that his second coming will answer his prayers for goals.

"He's a goalscorer. Going right back to last season at Ballymoney, where he scored four," added Ferguson.

"Strikers thrive on scoring goals. I keep saying to Shane Dolan and Gary Liggett, you have to want to score goals. Michael wanted to score on Tuesday night, for many reasons, obviously, but he's not afraid to throw his head in there. He likes to play on the shoulder, and that certainly makes central defenders nervous.

"It was a dream debut for him but the challenge for him is now to do it on a consistent basis. He's not going to score goals every week, but if we can get him to score 15-20 goals a season, then we'll definitely be in with a shout."

The message though has to be play from the first whistle, a similar lack-lustre start against the champions and they may not escape just as lightly as against Portadown.

"If you look at the overall picture it was three points against a very good quality side, so I have to be happy, but you can't get away with that first-half performance again," he added.

"I think the players looked nervous in the first-half, particularly in the opening 20 minutes and the ball was like a hot potato they were trying to get rid off.

"Maybe there was a nervous anticipation of getting beaten again and getting another tongue-lashing, but to their credit the dug in in the second-half, weathered the storm, gained momentum and got on top.

"Overall the second-half was a good all-round team performance, the first-half wasn't."

Prepare a seat for Jeykll or Hyde, who knows what might happen today.

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