Billy Weir: It's a dog's life being a big fish for Portadown FC
Sitting at Breda Park, the picturesque and fantastic home of Knockbreda Football Club, there was something in the air and it had nothing to do with the cows in the adjacent fields.
There was a whiff of extreme nervousness from the Portadown fans who had filled the Phillip Russell Stand in the latest edition of reality bites for the once feared Shamrock aces.
This is life for now, trips to the likes of Knockbreda, Dergview and Limavady for a team that not so long ago were regular challengers for the Gibson Cup, perennial Irish Cup battlers and it was only five years ago they were playing in the Europa League.
Fast forward and Niall Currie's men were scoreless at the break against a Knockbreda outfit that didn't give them a minute to settle. Yes, we respect you, but disrespect us and we'll batter you was very much the message and the biggest cheers from the visiting fans were for Labrador Beau, the four-legged fetcher of errant balls, who sat patiently waiting for his big moment.
It was my first visit to this lofty football outpost in the leafy environs of Belfast suburbia, and I dare say it was the same story for many of the Ports fans who made up 95 per cent of the gate.
It has been the same story all season, much-needed money for hosts but, and no disrespect to any of them, Portadown can't wait, or for that matter afford, to see the back of them as soon as possible.
Among the disciples still following from Mid-Ulster were Robert Donaldson, who turns 79 next week, and Kenny Hill, both fans for longer than they care to remember, and sharing in that nervy half-time state of affairs.
Plenty of experience on the sidelines, but it is to the younger generation that Currie must turn to, according to Kenny.
"Some of the seasoned pros he has signed just haven't been up to the mark, the young lads he has been playing were going well towards the end of last season but whenever the new season started he put on a lot of the old hands and the kids are only getting in now whenever everything has hit the fan," he said.
But both men have faith that Currie can turn things around.
"If you get three or four results together we'll shoot up that league. It takes two or three wins behind you to get that confidence but we don't have that yet," added Robert.
"What we have as well is that because you are the biggest fish, everywhere you go they're looking to beat you," said Kenny and minnows Knockbreda were desperately hoping to find the net in the second period.
They did, but it was sandwiched between two for Portadown in a crazy seven-minute spell that saw 15-year-old Alberto Balde become the Ports' youngest-ever scorer, a Lewis Irwin wonder goal for the hosts, a highly contentious penalty converted by skipper Niall Henderson and a red card for Nathan McVeigh's over-robust challenge on another young gun, Luke Wilson.
It just about sums up life in the Bluefin Sport Championship (that's the B Division in old money), and it wouldn't be Portadown if they didn't make hard work of it, with Ricky Rutherford going desperately close to grabbing an equaliser right at the death.
Then there were two big puffs of air, the referee blowing his whistle and all in red exhaling a huge sigh of relief that maybe, just maybe, this was the start of better times and for Beau a well-deserved bowl of water.
Manager Currie shared in that relief after the game and while he won't have the services of Middlesbrough-bound NI youth international Balde for much longer, he is more than happy to give his fledglings the chance to try and lift the Ports back to a loftier perch.
"The penny has maybe finally dropped that you have to dig in in this league and you need to fight and you need to have a fighting spirit about you and we showed that today," he said.
"It's been hard, we're just trying to get a foundation of spirit into the team at the minute and that's why I've thrown the kids in. No disrespect to the senior players, but we needed a wee lift, I think everybody needed a lift with the run we've been on and I think the kids have done that."
So there is still life in this big fish in a small, but beautifully formed, pond, where the welcome mat is always waiting - but how they just love to whip it away.
"It hasn't surprised me, I think it has surprised some of the players. We have a lot of our squad who played in the Premiership for a long, long time and I don't think they're too used to that," added Currie after coming through another cup final.
"You can see that when Premiership teams play in the Irish Cup and come down to Knockbreda or PSNI, they're always tight games because it's an up and at them league.
"That's probably the biggest difficulty that you have, every game you play every other team is wound up like a clock.
"It (promotion) has to be the target at a club like this and I am well aware of that, the target remains the same."
Next up is a home game against the Welders. The Reds need a win to keep up the momentum they have been building, but they know it won't be easy. Nothing is at this level, apart from Beau - he'll never let you down.
Seaview men set sail to Scotland once again
It's just as well Crusaders are located so close to Belfast Harbour given the amount of time they’re spending crossing the Irish Sea at the minute.
After their Irn-Bru Cup win over Dundee United on Saturday, the reward is a semi-final trip to the Highlands to play Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
The visit to ICT (which sounds like a particularly unpleasant hospital department) comes in February, by which time Crusaders will hope to be tussling for the title.
It was good to see David Cushley get on the scoresheet against the Tangerines, a mercurial talent who has yet to take a starring role at Crusaders, having to settle for scene-stealing cameos such as at the weekend.
Here’s hoping they return from ICT with a clean bill of health.
Johnny is good, but DJ is even better
Friday nights could be the future for Ballymena United if their win over Linfield is anything to go by.
A battling come-from-behind win for the Sky Blues was sealed with a contender for goal of the season from Johnny McMurray, and if you don’t believe me, then let Mr David Jeffrey convince you.
“Jonathan McMurray’s goal was just a totally outrageous, ridiculous, audacious strike,” he hinted.
Even better, though, was his insistence that this was just another win.
“Some people will crow on about the fact that it was against the reigning champions, it really doesn’t matter to me who it was,” he added. Now that’s not ridiculous, but it’s certainly outrageous and audacious.
Blues in crisis and in the last-chance saloon
There is no getting away from it, Saturday’s visit of Coleraine could be a season and career-defining one for many in blue at Windsor Park.
Their defeat at Ballymena means they languish in fifth in the table and a defeat would put them an incredible 14 points behind Oran Kearney’s men, surely too big a gap to pull back even at this stage of the season.
“No matter what Linfield team turns up, everybody wants to beat you, it comes with the territory and it’s no different this year,” explained David Healy at Ballymena.
He’s right. It is no different. It was the same last year and they didn’t lose five games all season let alone by the second week of November.
He is demanding more from the players. If he doesn’t get it, then there will be a long winter of discontent ahead.
- Remember a few weeks ago when Cliftonville were in crisis, Barry Gray was on his way out and Joe Gormley couldn’t hit a bovine on the posterior with a banjo? All of a sudden the Reds can’t lose, Barry is a genius and ‘Joe the Goal’ is the first player to reach double figures. What’s that you say about form and class?
Billy tackles.... Ryan Mayse
Fleet-footed, nimble, glides across the pitch and has an eye for goal. But enough about me, this week I am up against Dungannon Swifts’ Ryan Mayse as the predictions return after the international break. For those not paying attention last time, Warrenpoint Town skipper Stephen Moan just edged me out in the last series of games, so it’s time to get back on track.
The usual rules apply, three points for an exact scoreline and one for picking the correct outcome, with Ryan not allowed to comment on the Swifts game. For the benefit of an elderly reader who couldn’t work out the odd team out, it is Ballymena United this week. All part of the service.
Linfield v Coleraine
Coleraine are flying, Linfield are going through a bit of a sticky patch and, on form, a lot of people would go for Coleraine. But I fancy Linfield to win because of the fact they are on a bad run and their fans will be on their back because this is a must-win game if they are to have any say in the title race.
Mayse prediction: 2-1
Weir prediction: 1-1
Ballinamallard Utd v Glenavon
It’s a tricky place to go and last year (with Ballinamallard) we had a few good results against Glenavon but they are flying high this year and the Ducks aren’t going too well. If Gavin Dykes got a draw he’d be happy, but Glenavon are second in the league so I’ll go for them even though I would love Ballinamallard to win.
Mayse prediction: 0-2
Weir prediction: 1-4
Crusaders v Carrick Rangers
Crusaders had a few bad weeks but they’re hitting a bit of form now, and had a good win at the weekend against Dundee United. That’s no easy game over there and they’ll be flying, looking to post a high score against Carrick to let the likes of Linfield and Coleraine know that they haven’t gone away.
Mayse prediction: 4-0
Weir prediction: 5-1
Ards v Cliftonville
Cliftonville are scoring goals freely and their front three of Jay and Rory Donnelly and Joe Gormley are absolutely flying. They’re all clicking and it was just a matter of time before they would.
Mayse prediction: 0-3
Weir prediction: 1-2
Warrenpoint Town v Glentoran
It’s a tough place to go, Warrenpoint. We scraped a 2-1 victory there a couple of weeks ago but I have been really impressed with Glentoran this season. They’ve played us twice and beaten us twice and I’ll go for them because of Curtis Allen and Robbie McDaid’s attacking threat.
Mayse prediction: 1-2
Weir prediction: 1-1
Season’s standings: Players 6 Weir 4