Belfast Telegraph

Ballymena can soothe Shield woe with League Cup joy: McAlorum

By Graham Luney

Ballymena United's midfield warrior Stephen McAlorum is hoping the Sky Blues can land another shot at silverware success.

Crusaders rocked the Braidmen 4-2 in the final of the Toals County Antrim Shield and, while Stephen Baxter's men turned on the style that night, David Jeffrey's boys were off colour.

There will be no redemption unless they go on to retain the BetMcLean League Cup this season, but with Dungannon Swifts already through to the decider at Windsor Park on February 17, United must overcome Cliftonville at the Showgrounds tonight (7:45pm) to earn the right to wrestle with Rodney McAree's side.

The Shield defeat was hard to take on Warden Street - there is no disgrace in losing to the Premiership leaders, but United made a quality side look even better.

Cliftonville, whose Irish Cup dream is still alive after a 4-1 thrashing of Crusaders on Saturday, have blown hot and cold this season but with a place in a major final within touching distance, tonight's game promises to be another pulsating affair.

Former Glentoran midfielder McAlorum is putting his shoulder to the United wheel after an injury nightmare, and he hopes a campaign which started in frustrating fashion will deliver memorable moments.

"It's really one game at a time for us and for myself after the injuries, but the cup competitions are always special and we want to challenge in them," said the 31-year-old, who sat out his side's tense penalty shootout victory over Ballinamallard United in the Tennent's Irish Cup.

"Whether it's the Irish Cup, which I have been fortunate to win two times, or the League Cup, they are all massive games and the club would love to be involved in another final.

"I think we let ourselves down in the Shield final but we can't do anything about it now. We didn't get into our stride which is disappointing, but Crusaders performed well and they showed what we all know they are capable of. They are the best team in the league and will probably go on to win the title. We aren't the first side to lose to them this season but hopefully in this semi-final we can put in a much better performance.

"We had to raise our game to match Crusaders and we were unable to do that.

"It's hard to stop top teams when they are in form, but we still have a lot to play for and this is a fantastic opportunity for us to reach another major final.

"I'm focused on staying injury free because I really want to help the boys be successful. Ballymena United are a great football club and working with David Jeffrey and Bryan McLoughlin is a real privilege. They have big plans for the future and I like that ambition and professional approach.

"The first Irish Cup win for Glentoran against Cliftonville was special because we were underdogs and no-one gave us a chance.

"These cup games are about performing on the big occasion and, while the Reds will be tough opponents, we will give it everything to make the final against Dungannon Swifts."

McAlorum is enjoying the cut and thrust of Premiership battles again after a calf injury aggravated by an injection was followed by a blow to his knee.

"The team were doing well, and I was on my way back from a catalogue of injuries, but it wasn't until Gary Thompson's injury that the door opened for me to come in," he said.

"I'm feeling better than I have in a long time, I've played in six straight games (until Saturday's Irish Cup clash) and I just need to keep my head down and hopefully contribute to the team."

McAlorum faces a race against time to be fit for this evening's encounter and, after a shaky period, the Reds' rampant return to form on Saturday certainly didn't go unnoticed by Sky Blues boss Jeffrey.

"When I heard the result on Saturday I thought they really are getting their firepower going," Jeffrey said.

"In the games between us, we won at home, they won down there, and the game that was abandoned was one-each, so we're fairly evenly matched and we have to take control of their firepower.

"What has absolutely hammered us again is injuries. Emmet Friars (knee) and Joe McKinney (hamstring), big Kyle Owens had been ill all week with a virus and only trained on Thursday night, Andrew Burns has a virus and was poorly.

"Stevie McAlorum has a thing called Baker's Cyst behind his knee and hopefully he will be available, the same with Emmet and Joseph.

"It's fantastic, the games are coming thick and fast now. I think the supporters are enjoying it and I think the club is enjoying it."

Belfast Telegraph

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