Billy Weir: Our teams have Scot what it takes to compete
And Billy tackles Chris Curran's predictions while figuring out David Jeffrey's taste in music
The Irn-Bru Cup has been about as well received in some quarters as a ginger-haired stepson or a verruca bobbing about in the shallow end, with many wondering its worth and long-term future.
Pessimists say that the competition, which, to those not in the know, sees Northern Ireland teams locking horns with Welsh and Scottish opposition, is destined to go the same way as the Setanta Cup and will only show up the inadequacies of our part-time football.
Good to see, then, that Crusaders and Linfield shoved a couple of digits back up at them at the weekend, the Crues seeing off Highland League outfit Cove Rangers while somehow David Healy and his Blues managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against Dundee United.
Their display, albeit against a young Tannadice side, was very impressive, and it will be interesting to see what line-up the Scottish Championship outfit will field when they now lock horns with the Crues after Tuesday's quarter-final draw paired them together.
Let's get things in perspective. Dundee United, despite their lowly status at present, are a massive team in Scotland. It isn't that long ago they played in the Uefa Cup final, and on paper they are a top-six Premiership side, so it's great to see that our boys can mix it with them.
The footballing links between the two countries have always been there, back in the day there didn't seem to be an Irish League side who didn't have a tartan-clad Caledonian export somewhere in their ranks.
Stevie Cowan, Sandy Frazer, Kevin McKeown, Gary Peebles, Ally Mauchlen, Neil Candlish, Mark McWalter, Ian Gilzean, Gary McCutcheon, Marc Smyth, the list goes on and on, but of late they have been as rare as a battered bar of Highland Toffee at a Slimming World class.
One of them will be back this weekend at Ballymena United. Former skipper Allan Jenkins is back in town for a Legend's Night, where his contribution to the Sky Blues cause over six years will be marked by the club he left in the summer.
Jenkins is ideally placed to judge just where our game is at compared to his homeland, a man who played for hometown team Stranraer before taking part in the rise and fall of Gretna FC, with a brief stop off at Morton before being snapped up by Roy Walker, the then manager of the Braidmen.
He is a fan of the Irn-Bru Cup (please let it be made from girders) and, ahead of his own step into the land of the legends, hopes that marauding Crusaders can conquer once again in foreign fields.
"I think it's good and is to the benefit of Scottish football because it hasn't been in a good place with the Rangers situation, so we need something to get the fans back on board," he explained.
"Crusaders won and Linfield ran Dundee United so close. I think if you took the top teams out of the Premier League - the Old Firm, Hearts, Hibs, Aberdeen, St Johnstone and Motherwell, who are riding high at the minute - I don't think there's much in it.
"Crusaders beat Motherwell Under-20s and I thought they would beat Cove Rangers because they are non-league level in the Highland League and I thought Crusaders would be too strong.
"Crusaders are a good side. I watched them against Glentoran and you see what they've got on the bench and their squad is unbelievable. People in Scotland don't realise the quality, but I do because I know the players, boys like Jamie Glackin who is a super player and David Cushley who single-handedly won games for Ballymena."
Jenkins, who turned 36 last week, is a fierce protector of our game and is still pulling on the boots for Hurlford United, a team at the equivalent level of our Championship, and indeed was called up to the Scotland squad for the quadrangular Junior International tournament only to pull out due to his commitment to his function in Ballymena, something that speaks volumes of the man.
"I think sometimes you hear people from outside Northern Ireland talking about football and saying it's not up to much, but once you're involved in it you know that's not the case," he added.
"And the national team doing well is obviously helping the local game too. I don't just speak highly of Ballymena, I speak highly of the whole thing. When I left, opposition players were wishing me well, and honestly it is an incredible place and I'm so proud Ballymena has chosen to honour me in this way and so fortunate to have experienced Irish League football.
"I got it at a good time on its way up and I hope it goes on to bigger and greater things."
There you have it, Braidheart has spoken, and if Crusaders go on to win the Irn-Bru Cup, they might become legends too.
Out on the wing
DJ channels his inner groanin’ Keating
I’M not sure of David Jeffrey’s musical tastes - although the man who bears something of a resemblance to Buster Bloodvessel could never be accused of having bad manners, even when it comes to referees - but I never had him as a Ronan Keating fan.
After Saturday’s, let’s be careful how we phrase this, exuberant refereeing display by Keith Kennedy, the Ballymena United boss was less than enamoured as, from being in control, they lost Willie Faulkner to a red card and then lost 2-1 to Dungannon.
“I’m frustrated and disappointed but please do not ask me about the referee’s performance, because I can’t say anything. I’m making no comment whatsoever about the referee’s decision,” said DJ, a man who says it best when he says nothing at all.
As he’s finding out though, life is a rollercoaster at the Showgrounds, but he seems to be lovin’ each day.
Yikes, Sykes steals the show at home
THINGS couldn’t be going much better for Mark Sykes at the minute, riding high with Glenavon and stealing the show at Mourneview Park in a different shirt on Tuesday night.
He put on a stunning display for Northern Ireland’s Under-21 side in their 4-2 defeat of Estonia, bagging a couple of goals in the process.
Last season was a strange one for the midfielder as he failed to reach the heights consistently, but this time around he has been turning it on for Gary Hamilton’s men.
Great for Mark and brilliant for the league; long may it last.
Larne have a do but Scooby doesn’t show
IT was quite a week for Larne Football Club, picking up their first league win of the season and the next step towards world domination taking place as their new mega-bucks owner outlined his plans for the Invermen.
Kenny Bruce (not the Radio Two one) is a local boy done good in the world of property, and it would be great if he could rebuild (pun intended) Larne into the force they once were.
They have a long way to go, but near neighbours Ballyclare Comrades are showing them how it can be done, starting almost from scratch again and now riding high at the top of the Championship.
You still get the feeling though that Scooby Doo and chums will arrive at Inver Park any day to unmask Mr Bruce as a disgruntled janitor complaining about pesky kids, but no more cartoon antics at Inver please.
Billy tackles Chris Curran
THE predictions return after the international break and things are as even as many Stephens with myself and the players locked at three wins apiece thanks to Carrick Rangers’ midfielder Mark Surgenor’s whopping win a fortnight ago.
I’m pitting my wits (or lack of) against another central commander in Cliftonville’s Chris Curran this week, with the usual rules, three points for an exact scoreline and one point for picking the correct outcome.
As always, the player doesn’t predict his own side’s match.
Coleraine v Linfield Saturday (3.00pm)
I’m going to go 1-1, I know it’s probably a bit boring but I just think Coleraine haven’t really looked like losing. They were maybe lucky against the Glens with them missing the penalty but they have really been the stand-out team so far and have been really solid at home. At the same time though, Linfield will want to bounce back after the last results, so I think it will be tight and can’t really see much between them.
Curran prediction: 1-1
Weir prediction: 1-2
Crusaders v Glenavon Saturday (3.00pm)
There are so many attacking players, and with Crusaders coming off the back of a good win at Glentoran (below) on Sky and scored a lot of goals, but Glenavon have a lot of threat up top too. But I’m going to go 3-2 Crusaders, lots of goals. I think Crusaders have turned the corner recently and home advantage is a big thing for them, Seaview is a bit of a fortress. I think someone has poked them with a stick and they’ve reacted.
Curran prediction: 3-2
Weir prediction: 2-1
Warrenpoint Town v Ballinamallard Utd Friday (7.45pm)
I’m going to go with Ballinamallard, obviously they are my old club, I think they’ll win. I know they’ve been working really hard behind the scenes to put things right and I think they will get a change of luck and turn the corner quite soon, and hopefully the season will go in the right direction for them. They brought in a few new players this season and it’s taking a while for them to gel.
Curran prediction: 0-1
Weir prediction: 1-1
Ballymena Utd v Ards Saturday (3.00pm)
Ballymena got a good result in the League Cup during the week and I think they might be a bit angry after their last result at Dungannon and I’m going to go with them because they have home advantage as well and I’m sure the manager will have them up for it.
Curran prediction: 3-1
Weir prediction: 2-1
Carrick Rangers v Dungannon Swifts Saturday (3.00pm)
It’s a tough one to call as Carrick got a good result in the week and Dungannon are coming off the back of a good performance in the league. I’m going to go with Carrick because of home advantage again, and it’s a hard place to go and try and get points.
Curran prediction: 2-1
Weir prediction: 1-1
Season’s score: Players 3 Weir 3
The secret to Cliftonville’s recent success? Barry Gray taking his team to the swimmers. “It wasn’t a night off — I wouldn’t be a fan of dishing those out — we went to the pool and I told the players it would be the first and last time if they didn’t win, so they’ve delivered and they might get another one.” No Speedos next time though!