Belfast Telegraph

Mighty Ducks flying high as Ballinamallard make first ever Irish Cup final

Ryan Campbell scores winner
Ryan Campbell scores winner
Ballinamallard United celebrate their semi-final victory.
Fans at game
Adrian Rutherford

By Adrian Rutherford

They are the history-making footballers who have put a Fermanagh village on the sporting map.

After reaching the Irish Cup final, Ballinamallard stand just 90 minutes from a triumph no one thought possible.

The minnows, who play outside local football's top division, are arguably the most unlikely finalists in the competition's 138 years. They beat Warrenpoint Town on penalties to make next month's showpiece against Crusaders.

Manager Harry McConkey joked: "It's on May 4 at Windsor Park and I've put it in my diary."

According to the 2011 census, Ballinamallard has a population of around 1,400.

Club officials expect the village to empty on the day.

Hundreds travelled to Mourneview Park in Lurgan for Saturday's semi-final.

In the crowd supporting them was Northern Ireland goalkeeper Roy Carroll, who played for the Mallards in his younger days.

Also there was former Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott, who lives in the village and is club chairman. He said: "We are hoping that no one will be left in Ballinamallard on the day of the final, and they'll all be at Windsor Park.

"It's massive and I don't think many people will understand what it means for a village like Ballinamallard.

"But it also means a lot to the wider area of Fermanagh and Tyrone. They are all behind us. There is a huge goodwill towards us, and we appreciate that."

Ballinamallard are Fermanagh's only Irish League club, and reformed in 1975.

After playing in the Fermanagh & Western League they entered the old B Division of Irish League football in 1990.

Their fairy tale rise continued in 2012 when they won promotion to the Premiership.

After six seasons they were relegated last May, but are now preparing for the biggest game in their history.

Ballinamallard is about six miles to the north of Enniskillen and has won several 'best kept village' titles.

Its best known family are the Fishers, whose firm Fisher Engineering - now Severfield - has employed many locals down through the years.

Mr McConkey said the village will enjoy its moment in the spotlight. "It's a great opportunity to show people what we are about," he said.

"We may be a small village, we may be a small community, but we do have people who can play football and entertain.

"I walked the players around the place because not all are from Ballinamallard. It is a very small village, it's a very friendly village.

"I would say the football club is at the hub of it, it's at the very centre of village life."

The Mallards' cup journey will put the place in the spotlight over the next month.

They had beaten PSNI, Carrick Rangers and Dungannon Swifts in the previous rounds.

On Saturday they faced Premiership Warrenpoint in the semis, with the match finishing goalless after extra time.

It meant penalties, where goalkeeper John Connolly emerged as the hero, saving one of Warrenpoint's kicks as the Mallards won 5-4 in the shoot-out.

At 42, Connolly will be one of the oldest men to play in an Irish Cup final.

A beaten finalist with Cliftonville in 2009, he also missed a final through injury and never expected another chance.

"I lost one against Crusaders, and I missed out on one when I was at Glenavon as I was injured, so to get to one now at 42 is brilliant," he said.

He admits Ballinamallard will be underdogs against Crusaders, last season's league champions.

He added: "It's hard to believe. I remember saying after the quarter-finals that we would try to go one step further, and we have.

"Maybe we can go the final step - let's dare to dream. Why not? We've got this far, so let's see what happens."

Ryan Campbell, a fans' favourite known as 'Rocket', scored the decisive penalty in the shoot-out.

He said reaching the final is a huge achievement.

"It's massive, I think it will take a while to sink in," he said.

"We'll enjoy the next few days but on Tuesday night we'll be back in training, starting to prepare for May 4.

"The atmosphere getting to the semi-finals was unreal, so I think the village will be in shutdown for a week now."

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