Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: Irish Cup doom merchants are missing the point as Ballinamallard and Warrenpoint bring the romance back

Flying ducks: John Connolly is congratulated by his Ballinamallard team-mates on Saturday
Flying ducks: John Connolly is congratulated by his Ballinamallard team-mates on Saturday

By Billy Weir

As you read this, the concrete is still moist around the poor, unfortunate soul who forgot to heat up the balls with Ballinamallard United and Warrenpoint Town's numbers on them in Saturday's Irish Cup semi-final draw.

Their failure to give us the draw everyone wanted ended badly for them but has caused much gnashing of teeth and beating of chests that, perish the thought, one of the game's minnows will be up against slightly bigger fish in the end-of-season finale in May.

Yes, it is highly unlikely that the 'house full' signs will be needed at Windsor Park on May 4, but the doom merchants predicting an embarrassment to the game are really missing the point.

As I have said before in this column, there is more to the Irish League than just the Big Two. Yes, when one of Linfield or Glentoran reaches the final it causes the sort of whooping and hollering normally reserved for confirmation of a junket for the IFA suits, but surely this is the point of cup competitions?

Leagues are won by the best teams, cups are won by the best team on the day, or five days, and is why words like 'fairytale' and 'giant-killing' were invented.

It seemed to be well on track on Friday night as Larne steamed into a 2-0 lead at a packed Inver Park against Coleraine and the next chapter in their fairytale looked to be set for the printers.

Then up stepped the big bad wolf that is Eoin Bradley, who battered and bullied and eventually blew down the Larne house to get the cup holders back into the game.

As Chris Morgan said on the Beeb's live coverage of the epic match: "Larne are starting to wobble in the back area", but it seemed to have been steadied as Davy McDaid completed his hat-trick to put Larne 3-2 up with time running out.

Then came a kick in the wobbly front area as Jamie McGonigle grabbed the first of his two cracking goals and, with the aid of an own goal in between times, the Bannsiders breathed a sigh of relief and there was to be no romance.

By 3.30pm on Saturday there was precious little love in the air at Seaview either as a whirlwind eight minutes left Ballymena United down and out, and a season that promised so much now rests on lifting tiring limbs to keep hold of second spot and that cherished place in Europe, which is the least they deserve after giving so much to this campaign.

There was to be no upset either at Milltown, although there was a miracle of sorts in that captain Simon Kelly, a man renowned for belligerently preventing goals, became the hat-trick hero to finally kill off the hopes of Amateur League side Larne Tech Old Boys.

And with Dungannon scoring a late second goal in extra-time against Ballinamallard, it looked like the Swifts had ducked out of a penalty shoot-out against the Mallards.

Not so. Ryan Campbell, like fellow goalscorer Jason McCartney a loyal and long-serving servant of the Fermanagh club, popped up to head home and, after a crazy shoot-out, Harry McConkey's men were through to a first-ever Irish Cup semi-final.

The rest is history, and immediately there was much scorn pouring out that the imminent appearance of either Warrenpoint or Ballinamallard in the final would make us all a laughing stock. What are they supposed to do, have the good grace to withdraw and hand the cup to Crusaders or Coleraine?

Whoever gets through will fully deserve their place there and they should be allowed to enjoy what for most of those present will be the biggest day of their footballing lives.

If Crusaders beat Coleraine, then we would be in line for the smallest cup final crowd since Ballymena beat Larne in the 1989 Cup final.

I was at that final. Do you think I give a monkey's chuff that I was one of only 5,000 who watched Paul Hardy's back heel leave Vince Magee flat-footed but still big-bearded?

And that's the point, the fans of whichever two from four reach the decider will have a day out they will never forget and they should be allowed to enjoy it.

Coleraine will certainly bring a good following if they get through, after all over 12,000 attended last year's decider with Cliftonville, and it won't be a walk in the park whoever they would face.

Warrenpoint have more than held their own against Coleraine in recent times and in Stephen McDonnell they have a young coach who is prepared for all eventualities.

Of course, he may not bother to lead the team out, given how they negotiated the quarter-final on Saturday.

"We'd had four wallopings so the players took training on Thursday night," revealed McDonnell.

"They did their own report on Larne Tech and came up with how we were going to beat them. That was down to the players."

And Maurizio Sarri thinks he has problems with one grumpy goalie?

For another shot-stopper there is a chance to end his career on a high. John Connolly, who helped the Mallards negotiate those spot-kicks, is looking to succeed where he failed with Cliftonville in 2009 with a winner's medal in his forties.

Like Warrenpoint, Ballinamallard had a horrendous start to the season, there was little thought of a cup final when they lost nine games in a row.

Warrenpoint lost their first six Danske Bank Premiership games, letting in a hatful of goals in the process, but are now safe from relegation worries and can look forward to, hopefully, two days out in the sun.

Mourneview Park is a great choice for the semi-final, neither side will bring a massive crowd but the Lurgan venue will be bouncing.

Mid and East Antrim Council won't be enjoying a semi-final this year, the state of the 'pitch' there meaning that, stock cars gone or not, the only cars racing past the Showgrounds will be Coleraine ones going up the A26 bound for a date with Crusaders at The Oval.

You would imagine this game will be shown live on BBC, hopefully not on a Friday night, something I was never a fan of, but money and influence will talk on this one.

Back to the final, and IFA chiefs are believed to be looking at ways to get more bums on seats for the big day and prevent embarrassingly large swathes of green seats that were all too present when Ballymena played Dungannon in last season's League Cup final where the fans felt like two coffee Revels in a hamper.

Offering knockdown prices to 'neutrals' wouldn't be fair on the true fans but let's hope that tickets are sent to schools and youth teams or an offer where kids go for free or a quid if accompanied by an adult.

Let's enjoy the day, not have it brought down by the doom merchants, and here's to Ballinamallard or Warrenpoint representing us in Europe next season. Now that would be a fairytale romance come true.

Final attendances

Smallest attendances over the past 30 years, without either of the Big Two in the final, and last year's impressive turn-out

1989 - Ballymena v Larne - 5,000

1993 - Bangor v Ards (first game) - 8,500

1997 - Glenavon v Cliftonville - 8,222

2005 - Portadown v Larne - 5,431

2009 - Crusaders v Cliftonville - 8,820

2014 - Ballymena v Glenavon - 7,282

2018 - Coleraine v Cliftonville - 12, 012

Home is where the hurt is for Gary and Lurgan Blues

He may do next to nothing for the personal grooming industry but for those who deal in sound bites and talking points, there are few better than Glenavon boss Gary Hamilton.

After Saturday's 2-0 home defeat by Cliftonville at Mourneview Park, rather than trot out lame excuses or blame the referee, which he could have done because they had a blatant penalty overlooked by Arnold Hunter, he went off on a different tack.

"We lacked quality in the final third and it's becoming a bit of a habit at home," he said.

"I can't remember the last time we played really well for 70, 80 or 90 minutes at Mourneview and, whether being at home is affecting the players, I don't know."

It was an interesting point, but does it stack up?

I have had the 'pleasure' of watching a fair bit of Glenavon over the past few seasons at Mourneview and I can't remember too many occasions where I came out panting and needing a prolonged spell in a darkened room. They haven't broken much delph on their travels either in recent times and it is all a far cry from the early months of the season where it looked as if the Lurgan Blues would challenge Linfield for the title.

Saturday's encounter was the 30th game of the Danske Bank Premiership campaign, and with 15 games gone they were sitting second, a point behind Linfield with a game in hand, which, I think, was the Cliftonville one played on Saturday.

They had 32 points accumulated then, but they have added just another 19 points, 10 of them at home.

And no disrespect to the sides they have played, but two of these three home wins came against Ards, with the only win against a side in the top six a thumping of Coleraine.

They can be an unforgiving crowd at Mourneview, certainly the noises I hear outside the press box are often far from encouraging, but are they really any worse than fans of other clubs?

Over the season as a whole, they tend to buck the trend where teams garner more points at home - they have 26 on their travels, one more than at home - or if you want me to be really boring, they have 1.73 points per game away to 1.67 at home.

And so to tomorrow night and a chance to buck the trend, a home game with Linfield, a repeat of the opening day of the season when the Blues won with the only goal of the game.

If we see Glenavon trotting out of the away dressing room, wearing white, then we'll know what steps are being taken to address the hurt of being at home.

Final word

Good luck to Roy Carroll after he went under the knife last week following his cruciate injury that ruled him out for the season. Let’s hope he makes a full recovery and gets back playing again.

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