Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: Stephen McDonnell's big job now is to manage expectations

Main man: Stephen McDonnell continues to impress as Warrenpoint Town boss
Main man: Stephen McDonnell continues to impress as Warrenpoint Town boss
Harry McConkey

By Billy Weir

Back in September, Stephen McDonnell's long-term job security looked about as healthy as Theresa May's.

It had certainly been a hard time at the border for Warrenpoint Town, the Mournemen as pointless as Stormont with not an EU-regulated sausage to show for their six games played in the Danske Bank Premiership.

Six played, six lost, very few goals scored and a bucket-load conceded, the league's youngest boss, who, incidentally, celebrates his 27th birthday today, looked in deep trouble.

One of those defeats was a 6-1 thumping on their home patch by Ballymena United, and they were to concede another four against the Braidmen in their second meeting of the campaign, but it was to be third time lucky on Saturday past as Town won 2-1 at the Showgrounds to all but end the Sky Blues' title hopes.

But there was nothing lucky about the win, Town, as they had earlier in the season, recovering from an early setback to dust themselves off and level through the dervish that is Phillip Donnelly and seal victory through the unlikeliest of heroes, Brazilian Hernany Marcedo Marques.

It was the perfect tonic ahead of the biggest match in the club's history to date, the Tennent's Irish Cup semi-final against Ballinamallard United at Mourneview Park on Saturday.

That it is also Ballinamallard's biggest ever match makes the 'other' semi-final, as it has been cruelly dubbed by ne'er do wells and unbelievers, such a tantalising prospect.

Town also have the Mid-Ulster Cup final against Glenavon to look forward to, if it is ever played, and incredibly with the split upon us, still have a chance to finish seventh and have a bash at European qualification - typical of those border types, they'll try anything to stay in Europe!

I know David Healy is a shoo-in for the Manager of the Year award, David Jeffrey and Stephen Baxter will earn honourable mentions in dispatches and Tiernan Lynch's name will crop up too, but has anyone potentially achieved so much with so little as McDonnell?

He has been a breath of fresh air in the league, new ideas befitting of a man who is younger than a good lot of his players and when all around were going mad earlier in the season, he kept his calm and maintained that his footballing philosophy was the right way to play the game and he has been proven right.

"The players deserve all the credit in the world, we could have crumbled at the start of the year but we're firm believers in what we're trying to do," he told me on Saturday.

"We haven't sat back yet because obviously we're still in the thick of the action but I think we'll reflect on the start of the season when we were 10 points adrift after losing the first six, from that turnaround to where we are now and be 15 points clear of the relegation zone, going into the split we're looking up.

"We have five games that in my opinion we can win all five and if you are doing that you could be sitting seventh at the end of the season.

"I took the job over last year when we had 24 points and we stayed up for the first time ever without having to play in the play-offs and this year we've done the same and we're in the Mid-Ulster Cup final and the Irish Cup semi-final.

"If you'd told me at the start of the year we're going to steer clear of relegation and potentially get into two cup finals I'd have said you were all bonkers, but I'd have taken it."

Jeffrey, now one of the senior members of the managerial parish, could see the attentions of this young whipper-snapper chewing at his perfectly-hewn ankles as an irritant but he too is an admirer of what the former Celtic trainee is trying to do.

"It says a lot about Stephen and the folk at Warrenpoint," he said.

"They made a couple of changes from last week and brought people in, but they used the same players. For me as a player the week prior to a semi-final you want to be impressing upon the manager 'I am the man for the job'.

"Stephen has done a fantastic job, I've said that all year, they work so very hard, they play decent football and you've got to say well done to Warrenpoint Town."

McDonnell's philosophy is, perhaps, a result of his own hardships and disappointments he has had to endure in the game, his promising playing career nipped in the bud by a heart condition, but he refused to throw the towel in.

People have asked what Warrenpoint or Ballinamallard will bring to the final party, but a win on Saturday could put them on the brink of changing their clubs forever.

Who knows what knock-on effect it could have for the game in two of our more isolated footballing outposts if they could see off Crusaders or Coleraine in the final?

That is some way off just yet, the youngest manager in the game up against one of the wiliest in Harry McConkey, a man who leaves no stone unturned and has performed something of a minor miracle of his own in steadying the Ballinamallard ship when they went through a spell of losing nine games on the trot and still managed to make the top six in the Championship.

They have some great old pros there too in Ryan Campbell, John Connolly, Jason McCartney and Richard Clarke, a man who could walk into most teams in the Premiership, while there are some exciting young players coming through.

"In Harry McConkey you've got one of the most organised men in football, he's very thorough in what he does," recognised McDonnell.

"It's going to be a challenge, but the ball is in our court as it is in Ballinamallard's, and if you do it on the day, you deserve to win and then you have a day out on the biggest occasion on the football calendar.

"We want to slowly change the mindset of the club to be winners. When I spoke to them after beating Larne Tech there was one of two ways we could approach these three weeks - you could wait and take the foot off the pedal and be pulled into a relegation scrap and just play the semi-final, or you could start giving us, the backroom team, some headaches by putting in performances."

After what McDonnell has gone through to get this far, he isn't going to let a little thing like a headache put him off.

Hot Rod lets rip after Bannsiders take eye off the ball

While Warrenpoint Town, whether through numerical necessity or momentum methodology, didn't tinker with their line-up last Saturday, it wasn't the case for the protagonists in the second Irish Cup semi-final.

Both Coleraine and Crusaders made a number of key changes to personnel with one eye on what could be a season-defining clash at the Oval - and with mixed results.

Crusaders battled back from two goals down to earn a share of the spoils with Ards, but the Bannsiders were simply awful when they lost to Institute at the Brandywell - a game that mathematically secured Stute's safety in the Danske Bank Premiership.

That is a fabulous achievement for all concerned given the loss of their ground, manager, captain and top scorer in recent times.

Stephen Baxter held his hands up afterwards and admitted that, with Linfield galloping off into the title distance, his decision was a prescient one.

"We have a number of knocks and a few players that are one yellow card away from suspension, so it made perfect sense to protect those players," said the Crues chief.

Rodney McAree also rung the changes, but if he was opening the door to a few to grab a place in the semi-final line-up, it was quickly slammed shut and he wasn't behind it in letting them know.

"From my point of view, I feel as if we've all cheated the club," he fumed.

"We've all cheated the supporters and we've put in a level of performance which is unacceptable.

"I think players need to look after now instead of looking forward to next week, because next week might not happen for some of them."

Strong words, and there could be a hint of mind games about them, but the proof will come on Saturday when they go toe to toe in what should be a cracker.

It's certainly Andy to have a couple of class strikers

Isn't it typical, you wait for two strikers called Andrew to reach a goalscoring milestone and then two come along all at once.

Messrs Waterworth and Mitchell notched up a little piece of history at the weekend, with Linfield's ace marksman bagging four in his side's thumping of Dungannon Swifts on Friday night.

It was an incredible TENTH hat-trick in Linfield colours and brought up his 250th goal for them, and he now stands at 252. Not bad for a man whose future at the club is still, incredibly, in some doubt.

He is still the go-to man for Linfield, the biggest of big-game players and if he isn't rewarded with a new deal in the summer then there will be a stampede to secure his signature.

Mind you, with the service he is getting from Jordan Stewart at the minute, Uncle Andy could score a bagful, but he is different class.

And the other goalscoring Andrew, Glenavon's Mr Mitchell - he is a teacher after all - showed that form may be temporary but his striking instincts keep him at the head of the class, with a timely winner against Newry City to notch up his 100th Irish League goal.

By his own standards he hasn't been firing on all cylinders but the work he does to help his team-mates means he has to be one of the first names on the teamsheet each week.

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