Belfast Telegraph

'Quack' will be mighty in this tiny football outpost if Mallards land Irish Cup

Staff at Beatty’s Spar (from left) Winnie Stewart, Alison Thompson, Sarah Oldman and Diane Smith
Staff at Beatty’s Spar (from left) Winnie Stewart, Alison Thompson, Sarah Oldman and Diane Smith
Tom Elliott, Ballinamallard FC chairman, feeding his cattle
Rev John Beacom from Ballinamallard Methodist Church
The Fermanagh village’s sign
The Fermanagh village’s main street
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

It could just be the shortest victory parade in football history for the team with the longest name ever to be engraved on the Irish Cup.

If Ballinamallard United beat Crusaders in Saturday's final it will take them only a few minutes to traverse the Fermanagh village's tiny Main Street, where even Storm Hanna hasn't blown away the dreams of glory.

The gales tore down some of the blue and white bunting on the street - but the spirits in this football-crazy village are still soaring for their heroes, who they call the Mallards or the Mighty Ducks.

Lexie Beatty's Spar shop has been gripped by Mallard mania with the exterior a riot of banners, flags and good luck messages.

Inside, their cup final merchandise has been flying off the shelves.

Indeed, Lexie has had to order extra supplies of wigs and flags to try and satisfy the apparently insatiable demand.

For him, the extra revenue is the good news.

But on Saturday Ballinamallard will make a ghost town look overcrowded.

Lexie said: "I usually have 14 staff here on a Saturday. But this weekend I'll make do with three. Sure, everybody will be in Belfast not Ballinamallard."

Across the street butcher Keith Moore appears to be joining in the 'quack', but the duck legs he is advertising are a Ballinamallard delicacy all-year round.

At the home of the Mallards - Ferney Park, aka the 'Fernabeu' - club secretary Richard McBride, who used to play for United, says ticket sales for the Windsor Park final against favourites the Crues are going well.

He reckons 1,500 Ducks diehards will be winging it on the Mallards' migration eastwards - and that's 160 more people than were listed in the last population census for Ballinamallard, the ancestral home of writer Rudyard Kipling and former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

The 'extra' supporters will be from other football clubs across Fermanagh supporting the first-ever side from the county to play in an Irish Cup final.

Richard said: "Fermanagh has a proud tradition of people getting behind all sports. Football people were all rooting for St Michael's Enniskillen when they won the all-Ireland schools GAA cup for the first time last month."

He says Ballinamallard, who were relegated in May 2018 to the second tier of local football after six years in the Irish League Premiership, are looking to history as an omen for upsetting the Crusaders' apple cart.

"We're taking Carrick Rangers 2-1 win over Linfield in the 1976 final as a sign, and that was also the season that Ballinamallard were reformed after having folded in the late Fifties," he said.

Ballinamallard, who have long had links to the family behind the village's Fisher engineering company - now Severfield - may be footballing minnows, but they are preparing big-time for the final under their highly-rated manager Harry McConkey

The players, most of whom aren't from the village, will also be suited and booted in the finest of finery as they set off for Belfast. "They'll have lunch in a local hotel before heading to Windsor and they will definitely look the part," said Richard.

So will the fans with their dyed hair and painted faces.

"The whole village has gone mad," laughed Gail Wallace, who works in the local Centra store.

"Everyone is counting the hours. Sadly I'm due to work but I'll have a wee drink when the boys win the cup."

Robert Deane also insists the Ducks won't be on a wild goose chase. He said: "I've been a fan for 33 years and I'm still pinching myself, but I think we can win. We'll enjoy the day out no matter what."

His friend Trevor Neely is buoyant. He insisted: "You have to believe. It's 11 versus 11. It's a dream come true after the team were relegated last season." Ballinamallard's youth academy boss John Quinn, who has helped nurture footballing talent like Northern Ireland internationals Roy Carroll and Andy Little, is quietly confident.

He said: "I think we'll beat the Crues 1-0."

Helen Hurst, who has been crowned United's superfan by the football authorities, runs the Encore Steakhouse in Ballinamallard. She is opening early to send the supporters off to Belfast with Ulster frys in their bellies.

"I'm walking out the door at 10.45am to go to Windsor, but my own stomach is already a bundle of nerves," added Helen.

She promised that win or lose - there can't be a draw - Ballinamallard will be in party mode on Saturday night at Ferney Park, where she'll be barbecuing the burgers. "The whole village will be here," added club secretary Richard.

"We are a real community club. We were recently recognised by the Queen with an award for voluntary service."

Former Ulster Unionist leader and local MP Tom Elliott is the Ducks' chairman and a former centre-half.

And he can't wait to go 'UUP' for the cup in Belfast even though he is busy working as a European election agent for his colleague - and Linfield supporter - Danny Kennedy.

He explained: "I'll only have the final on my mind on Saturday. I'm taking a car load of people to the game including the club president Ernie Fisher and the Church of Ireland Bishop of Clogher John McDowell."

Tom, however, doesn't believe that Ballinamallard will need divine intervention to save the Irish FA the trouble of replacing the blue and white ribbons that were tied to the trophy last year when Coleraine beat Cliftonville.

See sport, page 48

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