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Alan Blayney: Irish League fans' abuse is not getting worse and goalkeepers can't avoid it

Alan Blayney

Former Northern Ireland international and Irish League favourite Alan Blayney doesn't believe verbal abuse is getting worse in Irish League football - because it's always existed.

Goalkeepers are often in the firing line because they are in close proximity to fans but the chaotic scenes at the end of the Irish Cup match involving Warrenpoint Town and Ballymena United at Milltown on Saturday stunned everyone.

Police investigations are continuing into an alleged assault at the sixth-round tie and the Irish FA's disciplinary committee will review the brawl.

Warrenpoint goalkeeper Mark Byrne was involved in an altercation with spectators in injury-time, which saw the fence collapse and fans spill onto the field.

There has been claim and counter claim since the incident with Warrenpoint chairman Connaire McGreevy saying Byrne was "physically assaulted" and the subject of "sectarian verbal abuse."

Ballymena strongly rejected that view, saying they were unaware of "any evidence or reference to sectarian abuse directed at the keeper other than the allegation from Warrenpoint".

The Sky Blues also said they would "assist the IFA in carrying out their investigation and we are confident that, once the facts are established, our club and its supporters will be exonerated."

There have been allegations from United supporters that Byrne spat at them during the match, while home fans claimed the 19-year-old stopper had suffered verbal abuse throughout the game.

The incident occurred the day after the Northern Ireland Football League Premiership Management Committee said it had held constructive talks with clubs regarding increased alleged occurrences of unacceptable spectator behaviour at matches.

Former Linfield stopper Blayney, who donned the gloves for both Ballymena and Warrenpoint during his career, is now goalkeeping coach at Larne, whose number one, Conor Devlin, suffered verbal abuse during last month's clash with Glentoran at Inver Park.

Blayney was target throughout his career, particularly during his Linfield days, and he believes it's a part of the game that won't be eradicated.

"I've seen goalkeepers shout things back at fans but I've never seen a physical altercation or someone jump a fence to engage with fans. It was a strange one," admitted the 28-year-old, who started his career at Southampton.

"The abuse is not worse. There has always been stick coming from the fans and a goalkeeper needs to have a thick skin.

"You know you can't jump the barrier to engage with fans - somehow you have to blank out the abuse or criticism and concentrate on the game.

"You don't want to suffer abuse but you must deal with it. I've had my fair share of abuse, especially during my Linfield days, and I actually enjoyed it. Some don't like it and it can affect your game.

"Some can take it personally but I didn't. Fans can try to get into your head and put you off.

"They want their team to score and if verbally abusing the goalkeeper helps, they will try it.

"No-one will stop it. Fans are allowed to shout but it's much more serious if there are racist or sectarian comments. If it's personal abuse about your family, that will touch a nerve but I'm quite easy going and I'd sometimes laugh off the abuse."

Blayney added it was painful to watch Devlin become the target of abuse in the Glens' clash.

"Conor has got a lot of abuse from away fans," said Blayney, who also had spells with Ards and Glenavon.

"He didn't enjoy the Glentoran game when things were said I wouldn't want to repeat. It was really unacceptable but Conor is a big character and most of the time he can blank it out and get on with his game.

"If you are mentally strong then it is water off a duck's back but not everyone is the same and I can see how abuse can affect players' mental health.

"When that happens, something needs to be done but people will keep shouting abuse at goalkeepers."

Crusaders keeper Sean O'Neill said this week that young Byrne deserves a chance to rebuild his career once this storm passes and Blayney agrees.

"There's no way that the kid should be banned from football for life," he added. "It's ridiculous to say he shouldn't play again.

"It's possibly an error of judgment on his part, a split second decision and I'm sure he probably regrets it now. It's just a very strange incident to witness and thankfully it's very rare."

• Dublin City University won the Collingwood Cup for the first time in the college's history last night as Declan Roche's side beat Ulster University 4-1 in a penalty shootout after a close final at Dalymount Park.

Ulster University were unable to claim a first title since 2008 and it was Maynooth University Town striker Jack O'Connor who struck the final spot-kick after the decider had finished goalless.

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