Comment: It's the hope that kills all of us Irish League fans
A man much wiser than I once opined that 'it's the hope that kills you.' It is an epitaph that should be emblazoned upon the final resting place of all Irish league fans.
And I am proud to count myself among their number, ever since my Granda took me to my first match when I was five or six to watch Ballymena United lose to a team in red on a pitch where a piece of rope was all that was keeping the fans back from the field of play.
That was because a new stand was being erected at the Showgrounds, an exciting time as the promise of a bright new future arose as the structure took shape.
That stand is now gone. As indeed is the pitch with the rope around it, now replaced with a whatever-G replacement and a fabulous new stand to mirror the one on the opposite side of the ground that used to house the old clock in place.
Tuesday night's County Antrim Shield final was the first time myself, my chums or approximately around 2,000 brave Braid souls had set foot and placed posteriors in that new stand, now used to accommodate visiting supporters.
With Windsor Park ruled out as a final venue, the decision was made to bring the game to Warden Street and, with Crusaders as the 'home' team because of the convenience of entry via the Ecos Centre at the rear of the complex, it made it an unusual experience.
I am no fan of Windsor. Years of being herded around like cattle and shoved into various corners does that to a man but, for me, a final should always be played in a neutral setting.
The Showgrounds is a fantastic venue for big games and, over the years, Ballymena have had the good grace not to be involved in such affairs, thus making it available for semi-finals and finals more often than not.
I was too young for the Irish Cup wins of 1981 and 1984, made it to the 1989 win over Larne in the nick of time after someone stole our bus in Ballymena and was then almost denied entry to the Oval because of my large inflatable banana that had dangled out of a taxi window the whole way to Belfast.
Paul Hardy's audacious back heel won the cup that day, against his hometown team too, and I have to admit a warm and gooey feeling on Tuesday when I put a picture of the winning team, with the big striker holding the cup aloft, on my Facebook page.
When the man himself later liked it and shared it, I nearly lost the run of myself.
You see, a manager, who shall remain nameless, once moaned that 'journalists are just fans with typewriters' and for that we are to be thankful as they know the pain, the joy, the ups, the downs, the tears and the cheers that supporters go through weekly.
No matter how many games I cover as a reporter, there will always be part of me holding my Granda's hand wondering if the team in the sky blue would ever score, dreaming what it would be like to win an Irish Cup final, pinching myself that Paul Hardy obliged, dancing on the pitch at Ballyskeagh when they were promoted back to the top division.
Of course times change. I, like several of my chums, have long since left Ballymena but, on big occasions, we congregate, like a returning Diaspora, or lemmings at the edge of a cliff, to hoke out that 1989 scarf from a cupboard and make that pilgrimage together.
It didn't go well on Tuesday evening.
Two goals down in 10 minutes against a rampant team in red, I was reaching out for a caring hand to assure me that things would get better.
They didn't. A third goal arrived soon after, it could have been seven at half-time and then after the break a glimmer of light as Johnny McMurray pulled one back.
Then Kevin Braniff was through on goal, 2,000 people got to their feet, accumulated oesophagi opened ready to bellow and then Brian Jensen's considerable torso got in the way and those gaping mouths had barely closed, and posteriors hadn't returned to seats, before Paul Heatley (man of a match by a country mile, no matter what anyone says) made it 4-1.
A late goal for Cathair Friel was of little consolation as the players, led by David Jeffrey, thanked the fans for their backing and the supporters stood and reflected on what might have been. Again.
"If only we hadn't defended like eejits,", "if only the referee would give us something", "if only Brian Jensen had consumed less pies", if only, if only…
And so to home. A day's holiday used up from work, an 80-mile round trip on a horribly bitter January Tuesday night, a thorough spanking from a team in red and you know what, I'd do it again tonight.
There's a League Cup semi-final to come at the start of next month, again at the Showgrounds, and a final, probably against Crusaders, venue to be decided. Plans are in place for another trip, now where did I put that scarf?
Like I said, it's the hope that kills you.
Things can only get better at Windsor
Linfield's defeat by Glenavon at Windsor Park on Saturday was their EIGHTH in the Danske Bank Premiership this season.
That is perhaps an even more astonishing statistic than the small matter of 18 points between them and Crusaders at the top of the table.
Last season, they lost just three games and conceded a mere 24 goals. Glenavon’s treble on Saturday meant they surpassed that total and there are still 15 games to go. “There are a lot of questions to be asked of our performances,” said David Healy, perhaps one of the under-statements of all time.
“The players earn an honest living at this club . . . they get well paid, they get well looked after. I go out of my way to make them better, so we need a bit back off them. We need to be better. And, I mean from the top right down. I’m the manager, so it starts with me.”
Surely things can only get better, or is that just a d:ream?
Being a sub isn’t super for Reds star Stevie
Stephen Garrett is one of the most under-rated players in the Premiership and Cliftonville manager Barry Gray is a very lucky man to have his services at his disposal.
He has also given Gray a bit of a problem, what to do with him, as he has been sensational coming off the bench and turning games for the Reds but, like all players, will be chomping at the bit to get in the starting XI.
“Even when he starts games, he gives us so much but the problem is he’s so good coming off the bench — to his own detriment,” explained the Solitude boss.
“He’s such a good substitute that it would be a shame to lose that impact off the bench by having him start!”
Who’d be a manager, or a supersub for that matter?
Sad news this week that Ballymoney United stalwart Ollie Muldoon has passed away. He lived and breathed football in the Toon and will be sadly missed by everyone connected with the game. A club man and a gentleman through and through, my condolences go out to all his family.
Billy tackles...Andrew Mitchell
You find before you a bitter and twisted man. Glentoran midfielder James Knowles secured victory in last weekend’s predictions courtesy of guessing the correct score in Cliftonville’s 3-0 defeat of Dungannon Swifts.
Meanwhile, I insisted that not would the Reds prevail but that Glenavon would go and beat Linfield at Windsor Park but I only picked up a total of two points, meaning a win for James.
The people who make these rules really need to have a good look at myself!
Anyhow, a man who bagged a goal in that win for the Lurgan Blues, Andrew Mitchell, is next up for the challenge and coincidentally celebrates his 24th birthday today. Hopefully I can make it a miserable one!
The usual daft rules apply, three points for an exact scoreline and one for the correct outcome.
Crusaders v Carrick Rangers: Saturday (3.00pm)
Crusaders are a very good side and they’re hard to beat and especially at Seaview where they are very strong. I watched them against Ballymena on TV and they looked good and they will be too strong for Carrick.
Mitchell prediction: 3-1
Weir prediction: 5-1
Glentoran v Coleraine: Saturday (3.00pm)
That’s a tough one to call. There have been quite a few draws in that game previously and the Oval is a hard place to pick up results. Coleraine are flying, they have a good young squad and have had a really good start and continued on but I think it will be a draw.
Mitchell prediction: 1-1
Weir prediction: 0-1
Ballymena Utd v Linfield: Saturday (3.00pm)
That is a tough game for both teams. Linfield are still a quality side and Ballymena are very good too. I don’t really want to sit on the fence on this one, but I’m going to! It will be a draw but I think there will be goals for sure.
Mitchell prediction: 2-2
Weir prediction: 2-3
Dungannon Swifts v Ards: Saturday (3.00pm)
Ards had a good win against Ballymena last week so they’ll be brimming with confidence and Dungannon have struggled to score goals of late. But with the signing of Daniel Hughes that will give them a real boost. If he’s playing I think Dungannon will get a much-needed home win.
Mitchell prediction: 2-0
Weir prediction: 1-1
Ballinamallard Utd v Cliftonville: Friday (8.00pm)
Ballinamallard have had a tough season but it is never an easy place to go. We played Cliftonville a few weeks ago and only got a late equaliser through Sammy Clingan. The Reds are playing well and, even though it is a difficult trip, I have to go for them to win.
Mitchell prediction: 1-3
Weir prediction: 2-2
Season’s standings: Players 11 Weir 6