Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: It's time to give Ballymena United a level playing field

Life’s a pitch: The Showgrounds on Saturday
Life’s a pitch: The Showgrounds on Saturday
The Showgrounds in October when the new playing surface was used for the first time

By Billy Weir

For years it was stock cars who were seen as the enemy of the sward at the Ballymena Showgrounds, but now it is the pitch itself that is fast becoming a laughing stock.

Hot Rods may need to be exchanged for sand buggies, and Mitres for beach balls, the way the current surface is looking and all this after the much-trumpeted relaying of a pitch that has, quite frankly, been the worst in the league for years.

Saturday's game with Ards survived a late - a very late - inspection, the green light given by referee Ross Dunlop at just before 1.30pm, giving any fan travelling from north Down precious little time to hit the road.

It certainly wasn't fair on Ards, who have enough problems of their own to deal with, and if the referee had turned up any earlier, as you can see from the pictures, there wasn't a hope of it going ahead.

Given the conditions, it was a credit to the two teams that they produced a cracking game, United keeping their title hopes on track with a 4-1 win, while Ards' bad luck just keeps on coming, hitting the woodwork twice and then poor Michael Kerr scoring an own goal late on.

Two things on that last point. One, it was definitely an own goal, Cathair Friel didn't even claim it but was somehow awarded it in some circles, but more bizarre was the reaction of Kerr's team-mate Kym Nelson.

Not only did he berate the unfortunate defender but then pushed him in the chest. Madness. Yes, be frustrated and angry, but Ards are bottom of the table and need everyone pulling in the same direction, not petulant outbursts.

Anyhow, back to the surface. A pitch that cost Mid and East Antrim Council - or rather, the ratepayers of that area - a cool £250,000 is a disgrace.

It only reopened for business in October, when it was a like a bowling green, and while we've had some poor weather, surely not enough to make it look like a bombed airstrip in Helmand?

And with Ballymena having played exclusively away from home while the grass bedded in, the pitch is going to be working over-time in the coming weeks.

Three games have already bitten the dust this season, the twice-postponed County Antrim Shield semi-final with Linfield and a Danske Bank Premiership game against Institute, and they have four more home league games to come before the split.

They are also scheduled to take on Portadown in the Irish Cup at Warden Street on Saturday and, if successful, could be drawn at home again and, as has been the case in recent years, the IFA could look to stage a semi-final there too.

Oh, and throw in a Ballymena Saturday Morning League knock-out competition and there is going to be little respite for the pitch.

It is a huge concern for David Jeffrey, whose main headache when naming his subs at the weekend was whether to include Polaris and Trident amongst them.

His side has won much praise, and rightly so, for their superb playing style this season but, speaking on Saturday, he was at a loss.

"I am no expert when it comes to pitches, horticulture or anything of that nature," he said.

"I do know that there was a big investment made by the council and, unfortunately, something doesn't seem to be right. There's no point trying to dress it up.

"I am sure council will be looking at the difficulties that are being experienced. You've got to say, this is a fantastic stadium. It's a superb arena and the facilities are first class but the jewel in the crown has got to be the pitch."

It was a point picked up by classy defender Jonny Addis on The Irish League Show, too.

"We have rightly received plaudits for our style of football this season but the pitch is just making that more difficult," he said.

"The weather has not been that bad so it has been baffling and frustrating for us as players.

"We have all these games to play at home at the end of the season and that should be an advantage, but it's not and that's frustrating.

"I don't think anyone has any answers, at least I certainly haven't heard any.

"I'm not sure who is responsible - it is what it is and we'll just have to get on with it."

And it isn't just Ballymena who are likely to suffer.

The County Antrim Shield Final is scheduled for Tuesday night - yet another mouth-watering clash between Linfield and Crusaders - but this is no surface to stage a final, you'd be embarrassed to send sheep out to graze on it. They'd starve for a start...

And as for the Council?

Well, I contacted them on Monday for a response but I am still waiting. Maybe they are cutting the grass or erecting new signs welcoming people to the Mid and East Antrim Everglades, but I am sure they are doing everything they can to make things ticketyboo again.

Ballymena United have never won the Gibson Cup, this is probably the best position they have ever been in to mount a challenge and all they ask from their landlord is a level playing field. Or even just one that they can play on.

Good golly, Nicky is in no mood to mollycoddle

He won’t want it but you can’t help but feel sorry for Ards manager Colin Nixon who, week-in, week-out, meets the press corps to try and explain yet another defeat.

For a man so used to winning as a player with Glentoran, and was often put into the firing line by managers to face the press when the Glens weren’t doing so well, it is almost bordering on cruel.

But one thing he is and was is a fighter and, with him in their corner, Ards fans can take some solace that he will give everything to keep the side in the Premiership.

But he needs his players to step up and he has made a point of telling them to stop feeling sorry for themselves and extract a digit or two.

“I was very hard on them after the game. That’s just the way I am, the way I played, and I am really disappointed,” he said after Saturday’s loss to Ballymena United.

“I told them there’s no time to mollycoddle now, they’re grown men, they’re semi-professional footballers and in this day and age you almost feel you can’t say boo to a goose.

“I think it’s the most ridiculous era we have ever lived in our lives and it’s certainly not like that in my changing room.”

Oisin is making quite a splash with the Swifts

We've had Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen (and the less said about Eight, the better) but now Dungannon Swifts may have an Oisin blockbuster of their own on their hands.

Following his first goal in senior football a couple of weeks ago, Oisin No. 28, or Smyth if you prefer, was the hero for the Swifts as they defeated Coleraine on Saturday to keep up their great recent form.

The midfielder created one and scored a classy second as he came back to haunt former boss Rodney McAree at Ballycastle Road.

He has already earned many plaudits but how refreshing it was to hear the 18-year-old praise McAree for setting him on the way to the big time.

“I’ll always be grateful to Rodney. I’ve worked hard for the chance and he encouraged me, but he’ll understand that my focus is on winning games for Dungannon Swifts,” he said.

He will indeed and refreshing, too, to hear McAree’s honest assessment of the game.

“I thought we were beaten by the better side on the day,” he admitted.

Final word

And so the final unbeaten run has come to an end with Tobermore United inflicting a first defeat of the Bluefin Intermediate League on Annagh United and, to make matters worse, Queen’s University surpassed them at the top. With the likes of Michael Gault and John Convery in their side, though, it’ll be a temporary blip.

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