Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: Ballymena's second place is arguably David Jeffrey's biggest hit and a title challenge could follow in time

David Jeffrey and Ballymena United are off to Europe
David Jeffrey and Ballymena United are off to Europe
Ryan Catney

By Billy Weir

Ultravox were famously kept off No.1 spot by Joe Dolce, while the St Winifred's School Choir's toe-curling, stomach-wrenching Grandma We Love You denied John Lennon a festive top of the pops, but for one DJ a second place in the charts is arguably his biggest hit.

David Jeffrey is local football's most successful manager ever - at Linfield he lifted 31 major honours, nine league crowns and seven Irish Cups among them - and since returning from his sabbatical to take over at Ballymena United in 2016 has guided the Braidmen to a League Cup triumph, fourth place in the league and a Europa League play-off win.

Throw in more manager of the month awards than you could shake a big stick at and many would use Mr Dolce's suggesting of Shaddap You Face to the argument that clinching runner-up spot in the Danske Bank Premiership can compare to being handed something with ribbons dangling off the side of it.

The Pet Shop Boys denied The Pogues and Kirsty McColl a famous festive No.1, but arguably the fairytale of Warden Street is something that would have the choir of the NYPD in full voice.

There have been a number of final defeats too, but on this occasion finishing second is no disappointment, with the lucrative pot of gold more than compensating for the lack of silverware in what has been one of the most memorable seasons in the club's history.

Many eyes were raised skywards when Jeffrey took over the reins of the Sky Blues back in 2016, saving them from the real threat of relegation and the doom that could have followed, and in his words a plan guided by 'baby steps and incremental strides'.

All season he has argued that his side has been punching above its weight, but to finish comfortably ahead of defending champions Crusaders, who had moved further down the full-time route, and to leave last year's runners-up Coleraine trailing in their wake is a momentous achievement.

It has, as the man himself said, been a rollercoaster ride, summed up perfectly in Tuesday night's extraordinary clash with nearest challengers Glenavon, where a point would secure the first runner-up spot since 1980.

No such thing though as 'keep it tight lads and we'll play out a boring scoreless draw' around the Showgrounds these days; a seven-goal thriller, nerves frazzled and at the end fans, who let's not forget were not universally welcoming of the big man's arrival, lapping up every bombastic bashing of that not so big as it once was chest after the game.

'Top six and another crack at Europe, that's what we want' has been the mantra all season, not once did anyone break rank and say that the title was their aim, but that may come in time.

For clubs such as Linfield and Glentoran, European football has traditionally been the season-starter, but for the bulk of clubs it remains a tantalising hors d'oeuvre to be savoured, treasured and enjoyed.

To put it into perspective, this will only be Ballymena's eighth crack at European football, the first also my first, when as a seven-year-old, I was collected by my dad, who got me out of Primary School early, because back in those days the Showgrounds was a very different beast with no floodlights and a far cry from the superb arena it is now.

Having said that, the pitch was probably a lot better then for the visit of Belgian side SK Beveren (left), and I would argue that in 2019 with a level playing field the Sky Blues may have got even closer to Linfield for the Gibson Cup.

We'll never know the answer to that, but the remarkable thing is that they got to within nine points of David Healy's worthy champions who only lost five games and have conceded a miserly 26 goals to date.

As I said earlier, it is 39 years since they last claimed runner-up spot, Alan Campbell's dazzling side that took part in the Uefa Cup against Vorwaerts of Germany and recorded that rarity for Irish League sides - a win against continental opposition.

Goals from two United legends Sammy McQuiston and John Sloan gave them a first leg victory, although they were to lose out on aggregate after a 3-0 reversal back in Germany, but that was a team full of stars.

Former Northern Ireland defender and manager Nigel Worthington was cutting his teeth, stalwarts such as Graham Fox and Geordie Beattie, the class act that was Tony McCall, and McQuiston forging an attack with Paul Malone and Gerry Mullan - what a frontline that would be in any era.

This side isn't full of stars. What it is, though, is full of spirit, camaraderie and heart; a desire for many of them to prove people wrong, having moved from other clubs in the search for regular game-time or others untried at this level who have excelled under Jeffrey and Bryan McLoughlin's leadership.

A big thanks is also due to Paul McAreavey, whose scouting excellence would put Baden Powell in the shade, while chairman John Taggart and his board have been a dream to deal with for Jeffrey and co.

Leroy Millar is a classic example of making the most of his second chance, a hugely talented kid from Cullybackey who looked as if he wasn't going to make the grade with his hometown club, but he has been nothing short of sensational in the middle of the park this season.

Then there is Adam Lecky, another with skill to burn, but after a nomadic existence returned from Australia and has grasped his chance with both hands.

Young Kofi Balmer has become a regular in the Northern Ireland set-up, Steven McCullough one of the best left-sided players in the league and a freak injury to ace goal-poacher Cathair Friel robbed United of that wee bit of something different in the crucial run-in.

And supported by some wise and not so wise old heads in the likes of Jim Ervin and Tony Kane, with Albert Watson returning and showing he has lost none of his class.

"I know where I'd like to go with the club and the club know where they'd like to go," said Jeffrey on his arrival. "Hopefully we will get there together."

They have moved on from the baby steps and incremental strides, and taken a huge leap forward. Next stop, Europe. It'd be nice if they ended up in Vienna.

Hopefully the footballing life of Ryan will have a sequel

lle v Crusaders29.jpg
Cliftonville's Ryan Catney receives the adulation from the Cliftonville support. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
 

The arch pantomime villain is calling it a day at Cliftonville but for Ryan Catney it is a case of 'oh no, he isn't' when it comes to talk of retirement.

Last week's decision by 'mutual consent' that his 12-year service at Solitude is to come to an end was a bit of a shocker but when a new manager comes in they have new ideas and Paddy McLaughlin is looking to the future. But thankfully so is Catney.

I am an unashamed fan of Cats, the less furry kind, universally loathed by other fans as much as he been treasured by Reds' followers.

He would tackle a bus on fire and has made the guts of 400 appearances for Cliftonville since signing from Lisburn Distillery back in 2007.

It would have been a lot more, but for a double leg break that kept him out for the best part of two seasons, but he still managed to pick up two league titles, four League Cups and three Co. Antrim Shields during his time.

And now he is available for hire with the desire to stay in the Danske Bank Premiership where he is likely to have no shortage of offers, although Crusaders probably won't be one of them!

"I'm not going to lie, I'm devastated to be leaving. Cliftonville has been a big part of my life. I love the club, I'm a fan," he said.

"I always envisaged retiring here but sometimes that's not the way football works. I suppose when one chapter closes, another one opens and I'm looking forward to playing on."

And it says it all about him that he didn't simply want to quietly fade into the background.

"I need to be playing every week. There's no point in me sitting on the bench and not playing. I wouldn't do that to the club, I wouldn't do it to myself; I've a bit more self-respect than just picking up a wage."

Let's hope he continues to antagonise and annoy fans up and down the country for as long as he can.

Out on the wing

It’s the final straight for Glens in sprint for Europe 

A handful of games into his reign as Glentoran chief and Mick McDermott is facing his first crisis — it has always been thus at The Oval.

 After Tuesday night’s draw with Warrenpoint Town it means the Glens must pick up at least a point against Institute on Saturday to secure seventh and a place in the Europa League play-offs.

 A win for Stute — and it’s great to see John Quigg taking over the reins there — would give them seventh but with no European licence then that complicates the play-off picture.

 As it stands, I think, the Glens would play Glenavon, if Crusaders win the Irish Cup, but if Ballinamallard win it and get a Uefa licence, then it would be Coleraine against Glentoran, with the winner playing Glenavon and Crusaders taking on Cliftonville in the other semi.

 Confused? Yep, me too. If Stute win on Saturday then it gets even more so, with only third through to sixth involved and that again will depend on the Irish Cup outcome.

 It’s a bit simpler at the bottom, a point for Ards will ensure their survival, albeit temporarily with a relegation/promotion play-off with either Carrick Rangers or Portadown to come, while if they lose, Newry have to win and make up a four-goal difference over Warren Feeney’s side.

 Oh, and if Crusaders beat Ballymena and Glenavon lose to Cliftonville then it’s all change at the top.

 Sometimes you wish the Glens would give us all a break and just do the simple thing and win!

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