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Billy Weir

Why David Jeffrey is still the best man to turn Ballymena United's fortunes around

Billy Weir


David Jeffrey

David Jeffrey

�INPHO/Brian Little

Oran and Luca Kearney

Oran and Luca Kearney

�INPHO/Brian Little

David Jeffrey

It was around 4.40pm on Saturday afternoon when a disgruntled Ballymena United fan walked behind the press box at the Showgrounds and let a gaulder out of him.

"Time for David Jeffrey to go," was the gist of his message, although I have edited it slightly, as he staggered his way to the exit door.

He, like all fans, has the right to his opinion, especially after a 2-0 defeat by your nearest and dearest from Coleraine and in the middle of a simply horrendous run of form.

We are now into March and Ballymena have picked up just one point in the whole of 2020. This was certainly not the vision Jeffrey and his right-hand man Bryan McLoughlin had for the club this season.

This time last year, their spirited chase of Linfield for the Gibson Cup was just running out of steam, but with second spot secured - matching the club's highest ever finish in the top flight - Europe beckoned.

A win over two legs against Faroe Islanders NSI Runavik made another piece of club history - the first time the Sky Blues had made it through a round in continental competition.

Fast forward eight months and Ballymena trudged towards their second 10-match run of games without a league win as the seconds counted down agonisingly slowly against the Bannsiders.

After the disgruntled one had left the building, the biggest noise was the collective exhaling of breath with the news that Dungannon had somehow managed to claw back a draw against Warrenpoint.

That's how far things have changed; no more hoping that Linfield would slip up to give a chink of light in the race for the title, instead relief that Warrenpoint hadn't closed the gap even more at the lower reaches of the table.

United now sit in 10th spot in the Danske Bank Premiership, nine points ahead of Barry Gray's side who they travel to play at Milltown this Saturday afternoon.

It is fair to say there has been a bit of previous between the teams this season, the Sadler's Peaky Blinder Irish Cup tie ending in total chaos with Town keeper Mark Byrne getting involved in a scuffle with some visiting fans.

We all know the outcome of that - a ban for Byrne, a hefty fine for United and the ramifications continue with all the Braidmen's supporters' clubs taking a stand against Warrenpoint's accusations of sectarianism by boycotting this weekend's game.

This will hit Warrenpoint in the pocket, and what effect it will have on the visiting players remains to be seen, but it is just another crazy turn in a madcap season thus far.

The irony of the fan expressing his views in the general direction of the dugout was that Jeffrey was standing about three feet behind him, albeit with a plate glass window between him and his verbal assailant, after being sent off by referee Steven Gregg.

Even that wasn't simple. A yellow card for taking his protests over Coleraine's early penalty too far was probably fair enough, but if, as he claims, he was sent off for encroaching on the pitch for complaining about another decision, TV evidence would certainly suggest he has been badly wronged.

It was another kick in the teeth in a season that has lurched from the sublime to the ridiculous.

European success, a League Cup semi-final, being two minutes away from winning the Co Antrim Shield before Cliftonville's late smash and grab and an Irish Cup semi-final to come against Coleraine at the end of the month.

Then there's that league form. Just seven wins all season, just 34 goals scored in 31 games and 54 shipped in. Last time round they conceded only 50 in the whole programme and hammered in 80 goals - three more than eventual champions Linfield.

This season, Linfield, as we stand, are 42 points ahead of their former manager's side.

He was desperately down when he came in to face the press on Saturday evening.

This week marked the fourth anniversary of his momentous appointment as Ballymena United manager. That has traditionally been the period of time when various boards at the Showgrounds have developed itchy trigger fingers.

There is no talk of them firing the manager, but this sort of run - let's face facts here - would have had lesser managers without the pedigree of Jeffrey sitting very nervously indeed.

I reminded him on Saturday of what I said to him when he met the press on his first night as Ballymena manager. I told him then it would be a rollercoaster ride but he seemed delighted to be back in the game he lives and breathes.

Yes, he's the pantomime villain all other fans love to hate, but the reception he got at Seaview - from Crusaders fans - on his first day back in 2016 after his self-isolation following a moderately successful spell at Windsor Park was incredible.

He hasn't been helped this season with an injury crisis that would have had Holby City struggling to cope. They gradually seemed to be coming to terms with that, but the loss of captain and talisman Jim Ervin a few weeks ago has been crucial.

Ervin has been phenomenal. Already a legend at Linfield, he will also go down as one of Ballymena's best ever players, no mean feat for a man who was supposedly finished after leaving Windsor Park.

Jeffrey's cause has also been hit hugely by an alarming loss of form across the board. The majority of his players, if being completely honest, would have to admit that their performances this season have come nowhere close to those of last time around. That loss of confidence was evident on Saturday. The players looked scared to make a mistake, their passing was ponderous and the free-flowing, cavalier play of last season is now a distant memory.

Also throw Glentoran and Larne into the equation. Their arrival as big players has made it even tougher for other clubs, United not able to compete and meaning that Albert Watson and Johnny McMurray crossed over Shane's Hill in the off-season.

Those who know Jeffrey know that one thing he never shirks away from is a challenge. Yes, things are pretty dire at the moment, but if you were looking for someone to come in and manage your team through a crisis, who would probably be your first choice? I thought so.

"I never thought I would ever be manager of Ballymena and we've done a lot of things," he said on Saturday. "This year we got through to the second round of Europe and reached a cup final, but the league campaign was really hard to take.

"But if you would have told me what we have achieved... I am privileged and humbled, as is Bryan, to serve this club, and we will be here until such times as they don't want us here."

There is no clamour or appetite to show him the door. Just who they would turn to to fill those big shoes is anyone's guess, but whatever happens in the remainder of this season, one thing is for sure - there is a huge rebuilding job ahead.

For me, there's only one man - or two, as he and McLoughlin are a team - for the job. Like Barry's, their demise may have been over-exaggerated, the Big Dipper returns and the Ballymena rollercoaster may have a few more twists and turns to go yet.

Kearney put under the spotlight by an unlikely source

While there was dismay and despondency at one end of the Showgrounds changing room corridor on Saturday, at the other the contrast could not have been more stark.

Oran Kearney, with the Manager of the Month award pocketed, had guided his team to another win and another clean sheet to keep nibbling at Linfield's ankles.

They say never go back, but his second spell as Bannsiders boss is fast becoming fairytale stuff, the League Cup already safely deposited and, with an Irish Cup semi-final to come, the talk of a treble still hangs in the air.

It was interesting to note Gareth McAuley's comments in his Sunday Life column at the weekend, the former Northern Ireland star and Coleraine player saying that Oran's achievements could and should take him back across the water to the full-time game.

What he did to keep St Mirren up last season was fantastic and, while it ended on a sour note, there is no doubt that his successes here will not have gone under the radar.

He admitted on Saturday that he has been pinching himself at just how well things have gone, and the fact that he has players running through brick walls for him shows just how much he is loved in the dressing room.

There was a lovely touch when the press plonked their recording devices of choice in front of him on Saturday and, just when we thought they were all there, another phone was added - from a certain Luca Kearney.

At the end, it was over to Kearney Jnr for the final question.

"How many goals will we score against Dungannon on Saturday?" asked the tiny inquisitor.

It was probably one of the few times that Kearney Snr has been flummoxed this season, not getting the 'what are we having for tea?' query he was expecting and his prepared answer of 'chicken' no longer appropriate.

Whatever the result or how the season pans out, Luca's oul boy has done rightly so far, and there will be more questions to answer before it all comes to a conclusion.

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