Belfast Telegraph

Comment: It'll be all white on the night... apparently

By Billy Weir

Denis Norden, the man who was at the helm of the It'll Be Alright On The Night franchise that seemed to be on the telly every other week in my formative years, reached the grand old age of 96 this week.

By my reckoning, he was only about 72 when the BetMcLean League Cup semi-final between Ballymena United and Cliftonville was first mooted.

December's original date at the Showgrounds fell victim to the ice age that appears to have taken a firm grip on the Braid Valley.

Once the first puff of smoke is spotted belching out of the top of Slemish, the good people of the town will be hot-footing it out of Ballymena quicker than you can drive a sheep up Wellington Street.

Once again the snow and frost caused the second attempt at staging the game to bite the dust last month and then, on Tuesday night, in a long line of farcical fiascos that follow football around in this country, we had our own version of It'll Be Alright On The Night.

Referee Evan Boyce - ironically the man who abandoned the sides' Danske Bank Premiership game on January 2 because of Storm Eleanor - was called to Warden Street to carry out an inspection on the snowy Showgrounds surface.

To the shock of everyone, he deemed the pitch, even though you couldn't see it, was playable and thus the search began for an orange ball and a call went out to Huw Johns to come along and do the commentary.

Now, I am in no way questioning Mr Boyce's decision and I have absolutely no doubt he was right and that the pitch was playable at that point, but it didn't need Cecilia Daly and Barra Best to predict that, with more snow forecast and temperatures set to drop, things were not going to be ticketyboo come 7.45pm.

When match official Keith Kennedy arrived at the ground, he must have thought someone was taking the hand out of him as Pingu dandered past asking directions to the SuperSer shop.

Quite rightly, at just before 6.00pm, he made the correct call, but not before Cliftonville were on their way and all sorts of disruption had ensued.

"We want to do things right but this is all very unprofessional and it reflects badly on those who want our game to move forward," blasted Reds' boss Barry Gray.

"The League Cup is a senior competition and if we are trying to bring some professionalism to the game we are going about it the wrong way."

By noon yesterday, there still wasn't a clue on the NIFL website that something was wrong, just murmurings on the grapevine that there would be talks that would make Brexit look like a walk, or slide, in the park.

Ballymena for their part, and justifiably, didn't want to forfeit the home advantage the draw had given them, while Cliftonville chairman Gerard Lawlor was demanding an investigation into what he 100 per cent correctly called a 'farce'.

"Nobody expected the referee who inspected the pitch today to pass it playable and we thought it was absolutely farcical," he said.

"We have ended up tonight with both teams arriving at the Showgrounds, we had a team that had gone for a pre-match meal, had prepared for a game, the supporters' buses have to be paid for and it is just a shame.

"An investigation now needs to be held by NIFL into the events that took place."

That was all well and good. The crux of the matter was that the final was scheduled for Saturday, February 17.

And then yesterday afternoon, a breakthrough. Saturday's Danske Bank Premiership games involving the two clubs have been shelved but, given the amount of snow that has been on the Showgrounds' pitch and the possibility of further cold weather, there is no guarantee that it will take place even then.

The fact that it is on Sky is a good and bad thing.

I really hope I'm wrong but if there was a feeling that this game had to take precedence so as not to annoy a broadcaster then that's a very dangerous precedent.

Then again, if the powers-that-be are left to their own devices, Denis could well be opening a telegram from the Queen when this semi-final is eventually played.

I think it is grossly unfair on all the clubs to call off the league games, not just Ballymena and Cliftonville, but Ballinamallard United and Warrenpoint Town too.

The Mallards will not relish another midweek fixture, especially given the distance they have to travel to Ballymena, while I'm sure Warrenpoint had already matters well in hand for the visit of the Reds on Saturday and I hope they are well compensated.

Pushing the game back to Monday or Tuesday of next week, as was also mooted, would have been music to the ears of Dungannon Swifts, who await the eventual winners in next Saturday's final. It would have given the winning manager very little time to prepare his troops for another battle and, like Pingu's posterior, would have been far from fair.

We seem to have a solution that is acceptable to all parties, but yet again the game has been dragged through the mud, or in this case, slush. Let's hope for everyone's sake that the game finally goes ahead this weekend.

If it doesn't then we really are on a slippery slope.

Billy tackles... Chris Hegarty

I am nothing if not a sporting chap. After the misery of losing my last outing to Glenavon striker Andrew Mitchell, I sought out someone who had suffered a similar fate at the weekend, Dungannon Swifts’ defender Chris Hegarty.

 His hopes of Irish Cup glory may have gone, and there may be a League Cup final to come, but an immediate chance of bouncebackability is provided in this week’s predictions.

The usual rules apply, Chris is not allowed to comment on his side’s game with Linfield and there are three points for an exact prediction and one for the correct outcome.

And because of the madness around the BetMcLean League Cup saga, there are only three Danske Bank Premiership games this week. I was tempted to include the Ballymena United v Cliftonville game but I’m not sure it’s appropriate to award points for predicting a postponement.

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Chris Hegarty

Coleraine v Glenavon: Saturday (3.00pm)

Glenavon need Andy Doyle back because he has been very good for them this year but they are also really good going forward. Coleraine are in great form and you have to fancy them, but Glenavon always score. Coleraine’s back four has been very good and I think Stephen O’Donnell is a very good centre-half and with wee Lyndon Kane back — from what I’ve seen of the highlights he has been flying — and then there’s the legs they have in the middle of the park. Oran Kearney has them well organised, well drilled and the way they are going about things is very professional and I can’t see their run being stopped.

Hegarty prediction: 2-1

Weir prediction: 2-3

Crusaders v Glentoran: Saturday (3.00pm)

Crusaders had two very tough to take results and I think they’ll come out flying. They have a lot on their plate but, having gone out of two cups, they can now really focus on the league and try to get things running again. Playing a semi-final on the Tuesday and the Irish Cup on Saturday was not easy because they were two big games.

Hegarty prediction: 3-0

Weir prediction: 2-2

Ards v Carrick Rangers: Saturday (3.00pm)

Colin Nixon has brought in some good players and they are well organised as well and I know they’ll want to win and try to get as close to us as possible but Carrick will want to win it. If it had been at Carrick, you would fancy them because of the pitch but I think if Ards are missing three big players they will be happy with a draw.

Hegarty prediction: 1-1

Weir prediction: 2-1

Season’s standings: Players 12

Weir 6

Out on the wing

High fives for Mulgrew the midfield maestro

Six Premiership titles, six Irish Cups, two County Antrim Shields, one League Cup and 500 appearances for one of the undoubted class acts in the game.

Linfield skipper Jamie Mulgrew reached that memorable milestone on Tuesday night against Warrenpoint Town and was the well-deserved recipient of a few pressies from the club, fans and a man from Umbro.

The Linfield website describes Jamie (below with Blues kitman Gary Eccles) as ‘influential, inspirational but yet ever modest and humble’ and by a Glentoran fan I was speaking to about this achievement as ‘a great player, but I can’t stand him.’ Touching words.

He still has some way to go to reach Noel Bailie’s tally of 1013 and, by the time he does, they’ll just be into the second-half of the League Cup semi-final, but there’s no reason why he can’t go on to add many more appearances in the blue shirt.

A top player, a top man and no matter who you support, a fine ambassador for the Irish League.

But Jamie, only 43 goals in 500 games? Dear oh, dear!

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Looking sharp: Linfield skipper Jamie Mulgrew proudly holds aloft the Gibson Cup at Solitude. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker

Murray’s mint finishing gets boss out of soup

‘Thank goodness for Darren Murray’ will be the words uttered by more than one member of the Baxter family this week.

It was a dream debut for the new daddy as he bagged a brace for Crusaders in their 3-0 win over Carrick Rangers and help erase some of the memories from Saturday’s mauling by Cliftonville in the Tennent’s Irish Cup.

 It will have brought a smile to Stephen Baxter’s face again and hopefully Mrs Baxter too if her hubby’s words were to be believed at Solitude.

“That’s the weekend ruined for me. I’ll go home now and not speak to my wife, she’ll be in the dog house for three days and won’t get any dinner — or maybe it’ll be me that gets no dinner,” said the Crues boss.

You’d think there would at least be a tin of soup in the house…

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Big impact: Darren Murray celebrates with fans after hitting his second on his Crues debut

It’s clearly a lot quicker as the Mallard flies

At last Gavin Dykes has solved the problem of why it seems to be so difficult to persuade players to come and join Ballinamallard United.

“People keep saying it’s miles away. It must be shorter from Fermanagh to Belfast because no one wants to come from Belfast to Fermanagh, so it has to be shorter,” he said after Saturday’s Irish Cup defeat at Ballymena.

The players he has managed to tempt to Erne County have been shrewd acquisitions and if I was Carrick Rangers I’d be a little nervous right now.

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Gavin Dykes

FINAL WORD

So I see Larne’s money man Kenny Bruce wants to see the day when Real Madrid play his team in the Champions League. They’ll probably have a few more trips to Dergview before that mind you. It’ll be nice though to see Cristiano Ronaldo at Inver Park — playing against some wee Spanish team.

Belfast Telegraph

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