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David Jeffrey back in business at Ballymena United

Crusaders 0-0 Ballymena Utd

By Billy Weir

Published 14/03/2016

I'm back: Ballymena boss David Jeffrey makes his presence felt as his side wins a vital point away to champions Crusaders
I'm back: Ballymena boss David Jeffrey makes his presence felt as his side wins a vital point away to champions Crusaders

It is rare that the visit of the ninth-placed team in the league merits so many column inches in the days running up to a game but David Jeffrey is no ordinary manager.

But it has been an extraordinary few days for Ballymena United, the 500 or so hardy souls who followed their side to the home of league champions, Crusaders, still pinching themselves that this generation's most successful Irish League boss is in charge of the Sky Blues.

When Saturday came the press box was bulging at the seams like a chubby child's lunchbox, the Big Two battle across town relegated down the running order as the not-so-big baddie they all love to hate took top billing.

As the minutes ticked down and photographers nervously awaited the arrival of the man they all wanted to see, the surreal atmosphere was pumped up another level as the lilting melody of Erasure's A Little Respect boomed out.

Suddenly the flash of camera bulbs heralded a flash of a bald pate - not the return of Right Said Fred but David right now as he bounded out like a bison on heat, marched halfway across the pitch and with arms aloft applauded the travelling battalion of the Sky Blue Army.

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Job done, he turned on his heels, and with a beaming smile received a similarly warm ovation from the Crusaders faithful who were as happy as everyone else to see him back in the game.

A peck on the cheek for home boss Stephen Baxter and a playful ruffle of the officials' hair and we were ready to go - and it took all of 11 minutes before the angry Jeffrey made his first appearance, clambering out of his dug-out for a growl at referee Arnold Hunter.

The occasional spot of verbal badinage with Colin Coates aside, there was little else for Jeffrey or anyone else to get off their seat for as it was honours evens at the end of a tepid first-half.

The champions seemed to be struggling to cope with the game's added baggage and needed keeper Sean O'Neill to be on his toes to keep out efforts from David Cushley and Allan Jenkins.

The Crues had their chances too, Paul Heatley shooting across goal and Jordan Owens hitting the bar, but as much as they huffed and puffed they couldn't blow down United's house, much to the delight of their big, bad wolf.

Or more of a pussycat than you might think as, by his own admission, the man who has seen and done everything in the game suffered a fair bit of tossing and turning the night before.

"I shared with the players at half-time that for the first 15 or 20 minutes we were a wee bit edgy with one or two errors and that was down to nerves and I confessed 'I'm as nervous as you are'," he admitted.

"It wasn't apprehension, it was nerves, butterflies because you want to be your best because it was something you were so used to but, funnily enough, after 20 minutes it left me.

"You always want to test yourself and see if people respond and they did that and I'm just so grateful to the players, they were fantastic.

"And the supporters before the game were first class and I couldn't believe them afterwards and I know in the cold light of day people will say 'what are you getting on like that for, you got a point and clean sheet against the champions, big deal' but if you contextualise it, it was a big deal for these players.

"There's no point in playing and giving your best then not turning up next week so that's going to be part of the learning.

"As for the day, it's great to be back, wonderful to be in the company of such lovely people. To tell you the truth, it's absolutely flipping class."

In the bigger picture it is a point nearer survival for United and two points dropped for the Crues in their title defence and opposite number and old sparring partner Baxter will feel unlucky that they were the bridesmaid for the day - even if he did get a kiss.

"I got two - one before and after the game," he revealed. "Take nothing away from the game because he did what I thought he would do and that was put his most experienced team out and he made them very compact and tall and big in the key areas and we couldn't find a way through them. Simple as that. We couldn't unlock the door."

So not quite the fairytale return, but welcome back David, it's flipping class to have you back.

CRUSADERS: O'Neill, Burns, McClean, Robinson, Coates, Caddell, Whyte (Forsythe, 60 mins), Snoddy, Owens, Carvill (O'Carroll, 73 ,mins), Heatley. Unused subs: Mitchell, Magowan, Clarke.

Ballymena: Blayney, Irvin, McBride, McVey, Taylor, T Kane, Thompson, Taggart (E Kane, 62 mins), Henderson (Frazer, 74 mins), Jenkins, Cushley. Unused subs: Nelson, McNally, Faulkner.

Man of the match: Johnny Taylor

Match rating: 7/10

Referee: Arnold Hunter (Maguiresbridge)

Belfast Telegraph

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