As Linfield take on Ballymena, David Jeffrey discusses his love for the Country Antrim Shield
The County Antrim Shield will always hold a special place in my heart.
It was in this competition that I won my first senior winner’s medal as a player in 1983.
I was part of a Linfield side that beat Glentoran 4-1 — just a week after they defeated us in the Irish Cup. Then on March 5, 2014, it was the last trophy I won as a manager when my Blues team beat Crusaders 4-1 on penalties.
Some people try to down play the Shield as a divisional tournament and put it on a par with the Mid Ulster or North West Cup — that is absolute tripe. It’s a major competition.
As David Healy prepares for his first final as Linfield boss, against Ballymena United on Tuesday night, I know exactly what will be going through his mind.
There will be a range of emotions from excitement and nervousness to apprehension. Your first final as manager is huge and I doubt he will get much sleep between now and the game at Windsor Park.
The reality is, though, he can prepare, he can instruct and train his players to carry out his orders but when they cross the white line, it is all on them. But that doesn’t stop a manager feeling the pressure.
The League Cup was my first final in 1998. I agonised for days over team selection, formation and tactics.
We were playing Glentoran and I had a big decision to make — I had three outstanding centre backs in Stuart McClean, Jeff Spiers and Noel Bailie but only two positions.
My rule was and is if the man has the shirt and is playing well then he keeps it. But on this occasion I made an exception, brought Stuart back in, changed the shape and played all three.
My decision was vindicated as big Jeff scored a powerful header to win the game.
It was my first trophy as manager, in my first full season as Linfield boss, and I’d caught the win bug.
It gave me a massive adrenalin rush and I desperately wanted more of it. That season we won two more trophies, the Counyu Antrim Shield and Floodlit Cup. We finished second to Cliftonville in the League.
But that first win, especially for a team who had struggled to win silverware, was a massive confidence booster.
The significance cannot be understated and that’s why I believe Tuesday’s night’s final is of more importance to the two teams than yesterday’s Irish Cup game.
I know the Irish Cup is regarded as the blue riband event of Northern Ireland football but winning a final can really make a difference to your season.
Yesterday’s winners could go out in the next round but whoever triumphs on Tuesday night, those winners medals can never be taken off them.
It’s disappointing that the clubs meet in three consecutive games — that sort of takes some of the gloss off the matches to an extent.
But it also is a fresh new challenge for the managers, especially after the game going to extra time yesterday.
You would think that if a team plays well in one game then the manager will simply say, ‘same again’. What isn’t broken and all that... but in my experience that is not always a good philosophy. Each game should be judged separately.
Some players will need a rest, shape and tactics may need changed because even though you won, you could be more effective if you tried a different approach. There are so many aspects that could change and a good manager will adapt. There are two players out suspended after yesterday’s red cards — Linfield’s Paul Smyth and Johnny Taylor.
For Glenn Ferguson this final is equally as huge for him. He received unwarranted criticism at the start of the season and victory on Tuesday would send a defiant message of his qualities as a boss to his critics.
Just a few years ago against my Linfield side in the Co Antrim Shield, he became the first Ballymena boss to win a trophy for 20 odd years. He now wants to follow that up.
Everyone knows how good a Cup team Ballymena are, they’ve been in League and Irish Cup finals recently. Now they must try and push on and win yet another piece on silverware.
They have experience and a huge former Linfield contingent in Alan Blayney, Jim Ervin, Nathan Hanley, Mark Magennis and Matthew Tipton on the pitch while Glenn, Lee Doherty and Norman Kelly are former Blues players on the bench.
Expectation levels on both clubs will be high and I expect it to be a tremendous contest.
It will be no less than the fantastic competition which is the County Antrim Shield deserves.