Ballymena United will need to find spirit of ’89
As Glenn Ferguson made his debut as Ballymena United boss last Saturday afternoon, there was a man in the stands that he could do worse than have a natter with.
Alex McKee is the last man to have brought a senior trophy back to the Showgrounds and as the Sky Blues set off on the JJB Sports Irish Cup trail this weekend at Lisburn Distillery, it is something that doesn’t sit comfortably on the former manager’s shoulders.
It has been 23 long years since his side defeated Larne in a forgettable final at the Oval, thanks to Paul Hardy’s back-heeled goal.
Twelve managers have tried and failed since to repeat McKee’s success and the man himself would love to shake the monkey off his back.
So, what advice can he give Ferguson as he sets off on his first cup adventure as manager.
“Just win it!,” he chortled.
“I remember coming in when Tommy Wright was manager and he welcomed me and said ‘Alex, if ever I can do anything for you, just give me a shout.’ I said ‘it’s quite simple, Tommy, would you just win something and get this thing off my back!
“I’m a Ballymena man and I would love to see Ballymena winning the cup or the league, but it just goes on year after year after year.
“Everywhere I go, on Saturday even there were guys coming up to me and it was the first thing they said to me. It shouldn’t be like that.
“They would need to hurry up and win it or I’ll not be around!”
Silverware and Ferguson |(pictured) went hand in hand during his glittering career as a player, and McKee thinks the club has taken an ambitious step in giving him his first taste of management right in at the deep end.
“Everybody is talking about how the manager got on, but it’s far too early to say. Ballymena haven’t got a good side at the moment, and he can’t work miracles,” McKee added.
“He has a lot of work to do but he needs players and where do you get players at this time of the year?
“I think it’s a very bold move by Ballymena to give Glenn a go at management, and it follows the trend with what Coleraine did with Oran Kearney, and he has done really well.
“It’s a change. I think there comes a time when people have been going from club to club, it’s nice to see a break in the cycle.
“I think he’ll do alright. I don’t see them all the time but what I have seen is that the defence has been the problem because you just have to look at (Gary) McCutcheon and if you give him the support, he’ll deliver the goods.”
That’s something McKee did before he was axed by the club in 1991. A procession of managers came and went and the only tangible success came when Kenny Shiels’ side were promoted back to the Premier League in 1987 after a spell in the First Division wilderness.
“There’s a lot of water under the bridge since then. I didn’t think it would be so long,” admitted McKee.
“The team I had, never knew how to give up. We weren’t the greatest team in the world, and the Cup Final was a disaster! The only good thing about the game was that we won it.
“The real cup final was the two games against Linfield in the semi-final. Damian Grant was unbeatable in goals that day. What saw us through then was that we had three or four local players. The likes of John Garrett, John Heron, Michael Smyth and Stephen Young. Maybe football has changed a lot since then, but when you have a core of local players to your team, there’s a greater pride about the whole thing.
“Those boys were winners. I remember an evening game against Coleraine and my old friend Victor Hunter. We were in the old dressing rooms in those days and the two changing room doors were directly opposite each other and Heron was the captain.
“It just happened that the two teams were going out to the tunnel at the same time and Heron went out the door and hit it with his forearm and roared ‘let’s go out and get into these boys’ and away we went and won 4-0.
“I spoke to Victor after the game and he said we had a good win and I said I hoped we would win but never thought it would be 4-0 and said ‘Alex, the match was won when that big centre-half of yours thumped the door!’
“That was the spirit we had and they were good days.”
Whether Ferguson can recreate that spirit remains to be seen. There were promising signs in last week’s fighting defeat at the hands of Linfield.
Next up is a clash with the team he left as assistant boss a fortnight ago and he’ll be keen to break his duck.
“I’ve a good record. No wins for Distillery and I’ve left and they’ve won two and I’ve come to Ballymena and we’ve drawn one and lost one, so I don’t know if I’m the scud!” joked Ferguson.
“It’s a cup match and all the pressures of the league are taken away from us. In years gone by Dungannon have got to the cup final, Coleraine have got to it recently.
“The cup can be very lucky for some teams. You can get a good draw the whole way through and get yourself into the final, but we’ll not be able to say anything until after Saturday and hopefully I’ll be watching us in the draw live on TV.”
And you can bet that McKee will be glued to the set to.