Belfast Telegraph

Comment: DJ is right, it's time for Ballymena to keep calm and carry on

Managing expectation: David Jeffrey is keeping feet firmly on the ground
Managing expectation: David Jeffrey is keeping feet firmly on the ground

By Billy Weir

As we speak, operatives from whatever Ballymena Council is called this week are pulling down the monstrous carbuncle that passes for a Christmas tree in the town to make way for a giant plinth.

As yet it is unclear what it is for, however rumours abound that it is for the Gibson Cup, a giant statue of David Jeffrey, or both.

Tuesday night's defeat of Glentoran lifted Ballymena United into second spot in the Danske Bank Premiership and to within a point of leaders Linfield, and with the Blues not in action until Saturday, it means a win at Newry City tomorrow night would take the Sky Blues to the summit.

Understandably, this has created a frenzy not witnessed at the Showgrounds since the mooted concert by those well known followers of Beelzebub, ELO, but while one Mr Blue Sky was keen to sing from the rooftops, the current Mr Sky Blue is not so keen.

Any word of title talk is met with 'would you wise up', each win, and there have now been 11 in the last 12-match unbeaten run, is 'another incremental step on the journey' and mention of going top of the table was met with a 'thank you and goodnight' on Tuesday evening.

"We have done nothing yet or won nothing yet," he said after a hard-fought win over the Glens, but while his mantra is, and has to be, 'keep calm and carry on', it is understandable that the fans are beginning to dream.

That, of course, is tempered by the huge dollop of fatalism that possesses your average Braid dweller, where a sunny spell is oft met with the retort 'aye, she's warm, but we'll pay for this'.

Formed in 1928, Ballymena United FC have never won the Irish League in any of its many guises.

However, since Leicester City's incredible capture of the Premier League crown, anything now seems possible and the sleeping dwarf that has shown signs of awakening from its slumbers, with Co Antrim Shield and League Cup wins under Jeffrey and predecessor Glenn Ferguson, is a different animal.

The transformation this season has been remarkable. Jeffrey and right-hand man Bryan McLoughlin, with the not inconsiderable input of Paul McAreavey, brought in nine new players in the close season and most Sky Blue fans will tell you that the options and strength in depth in the squad have never been better. And they didn't have a home game until October.

United have flirted with breaking their title hoodoo on a few occasions - you can usually depend on them to raise hopes once a decade and then, ultimately, fall away.

From my era of watching the club, three spring to mind, the most recent under Ferguson when the Sky Blues were the unlikely pace-setters in the 2014-15 season but ultimately fell away to finish nowhere.

Under Alan Fraser they were flying high all the way to Christmas of 1997 with Barry Patton banging in the goals and in an effort to finally capture the blue riband of the local game, they spent big, splashing out £20,000 to bring in ace marksman Glenn Hunter, but again they stumbled and fell out of the race.

In 1990, the season after they won the Bass Irish Cup, they produced one of the greatest results in the club's history on March 3 with a 5-1 thumping of Linfield in the Smirnoff Irish League.

I still have the VHS tape from Sportscast (yes, I am that old) of manager Alex McKee being asked 'can you win the league?' and one of the game's finest gentlemen replying 'if we play like that every week, yes'. They didn't. They finished fifth.

So, DJ is just right to try and calm down expectations and the hype, but you can't stop people dreaming and there are signs that he can do no wrong.

His attitude mirrors that of one of his footballing protégés, Oran Kearney, who last season refused to countenance talk of the title coming to Coleraine and ultimately they fell agonisingly short.

That was more to do with the form of Crusaders, they were simply unbelievable and as well as United are playing, the signs are that after their own shaky start, the champions are back firing on all cylinders.

Paul Heatley and Jordan Owens were unplayable against Glenavon.

Heatley's piece of skill in the first half when he flicked the ball over Ben Doherty and ran onto it himself to scamper off on the attack was jaw-droppingly good.

There is talk that Doherty is going to go back to Derry City in January but he was halfway up the Glenshane looking for Heatley.

His volley over his shoulder from Owens' pass was sublime, the creator's diving header for the second was brilliant and as for his preposterous second, well that was just silly.

There are few better sights in the local game than an on-fire Heatley, although I have to say Stephen Baxter has left me with some disturbing mental images with his thoughts.

"In ice skating the judges give out the marks and Heatley's goal was 10 out of 10 for artistic impression and Jordan Owens' was 10 out of 10 for pure class," he said.

That's all very well and good, but who is Torvill and who is Dean? The image of big Jordan in sequins and skin tight Lycra is only surpassed by the thought of Heats in a wee sparkly frock.

Glenavon boss Gary Hamilton could only watch and admire.

"If you finish above them you will have a great chance of winning the title and we can see they are hitting form," he said.

And that, along with so many competitive teams at the top end of the season, is reason enough for people not to get too carried away just yet up Slemish way.

I am off tomorrow, now comes the tricky part of persuading the current Mrs W that a November evening in Newry is something that everyone should experience at least once in life.

Why do I get a feeling the words 'would you wise up' may be coming again?

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