In this week's edition of our popular series, former Ballymena United star Allan Jenkins talks about his time in the Irish League and how he was reduced to tears during a big game.
Q. What is your earliest football memory?
A. As a seven-year-old trying to kick the ball around my back garden, so I joined a boys club called Lochryan run by Tommy McBride for years up until recently. I lived right next to the Academy where the training was. I could leap over the fence and go into the sports hall. I was too nervous to go at the beginning because it brought together boys I didn't know but thankfully I did go and the Scotland international Colin Calderwood, who is from Stranraer and also played for Spurs, came along to present awards when he was playing for Swindon and I was delighted to see a real footballer. I could identify with a Stranraer boy making a career out of the game. Colin went on to play against Brazil in the opening match of the 1998 World Cup. I loved my time playing for Lochryan and made great friends including Kevin Kyle who went on to represent Scotland as well. But the geography of Stranraer meant you had to travel to get exposure so in later years I went to a club in the west of Scotland, about 50 miles away. I'm still registered as a player with Stranraer reserves today so I'm in good hands. Gary McCutcheon is another youth coach at the club, he's reserve team manager.
Q. Was there ever an opportunity for you to play in England?
A. In my younger years I had a few trials but I was more a homebird and reluctant to travel south. I was at Blackburn, Manchester City, Blackpool, Ipswich and Fulham. The last two offered me a YTS scheme but they saw me as a centre half and I wanted to play centre midfield. Regardless, I liked my family being around me and I stayed at home. I ended up signing for Stranraer, my local team.
Q. You began your senior career with your hometown team in 1998 and stayed there for eight years. Good times?
A. Brilliant. I was the youngest player to play for them at senior level for many years, 20 days after my 16th birthday I made my debut. In August, 1997, the club had been promoted to the First Division and Hibs had been relegated from the Premier Division. My first start was at Easter Road in front of about 13,000 and I expected a hiding. Stranraer won 2-1 and for me it was a special feeling going from boys' football to playing in front of such a big crowd. I thought 'this is easy, I've made it' but I was soon brought down to earth. It was a great learning curve for me and I eventually worked with Billy McClaren who is now a scout with Rangers. He was a hard taskmaster and gave me a great grounding in the game. I've always been grateful for his guidance and then Neil Watt came in and made me captain. We won back to back promotions, great times.
Q. Were you a confident young player, always believing you could enjoy a good career?
A. I was never overly confident. I knew my strengths and weaknesses. When I joined Stranraer most of the players were from the Glasgow area so I was the local boy. After the game other players would head back to Glasgow and I'd be the one left in the town centre taking the praise or criticism. Sometimes it did affect me because it was the first time you got real criticism rather than encouragement. At senior level winning or losing is all that matters and players find it tough. David Jeffrey always talked about being the best you can be and giving your all and that would sum up my career. I had a few good and bad games in my career, but I gave my all. Do that and people can't really ask anything more of you.
Q. In 2011 you left Greenock Morton to join Ballymena United. How did that move come about and was the travelling a pain?
A. I've travelled all my career so that was no worry. While at Stranraer I used to train in Glasgow twice a week and that was a 160-mile round trip. I went full-time with Gretna and they were 90 miles away. I'd been at Greenock for three and a half years and my final year was my most productive. I scored a dozen goals and won supporters' club awards but a new contract on offer didn't suit my interests. I grew up with Cutchy (Gary McCutcheon) and we spoke about the possibility of playing in the Irish League. Roy Walker, the Ballymena manager, had made enquiries about me and when I went over to meet him I was very impressed by his knowledge and enthusiasm. Every other person I met was so passionate about the club and welcoming to me. Gary spoke very highly of the club and I had achieved everything I wanted to in Scotland. I had won the three divisions below the Premier League and wasn't going to win that as I wasn't good enough to play for Rangers or Celtic. The Ballymena United move was an exciting challenge for me and my family and I loved it. You can't plan being anywhere for six years but I loved every minute of it.
Q. It felt like you had a special relationship with the United fans. Did you see it that way?
A. Initially, I probably felt pressure as I was coming from full-time football and Roy made me captain. We won 4-1 at Lisburn Distillery on my debut and at Glenavon we were about 3-1 up at half-time and I was thinking I've got this Irish League cracked! Aaron Black was sent off, it ended 3-3 and my good friend Kevin Kelbie scored the equaliser. We never hit the heights I thought we would and we were grateful for Cutchy's 30 odd goals. I was disappointed when Roy left, there was mutual respect between us and when a new coaching team comes in you are a bit concerned. Spike (Glenn Ferguson) came in, revitalised us and we ended up being a good Cup team. I felt a bit for Spike because he's a legend of the game and people automatically assume success as a player equals success as a manager. It doesn't always work out that way but I thoroughly enjoyed working with Glenn and his staff.
Q. Your Sky Blues spell was a rollercoaster journey, losing an Irish Cup final but winning a League Cup final and two County Antrim Shields. How do you look back on that time?
A. It was probably a fitting way for me to finish up. We won the League Cup and I was fortunate to score in the final (against Carrick at Seaview). My last game at the Showgrounds was one of the biggest as qualification for Europe was on the line. Working with David Jeffrey was probably the biggest impact on my career. He is a wonderful man and manager, I learned so much from him. When I was starting my coaching badges, I was watching how he operates. It was a great learning curve for me as a player and for becoming a coach in the future. He's the best in the business along with Bryan McLoughlin.
Q. In 2017 you left Ballymena United. Considering your affection for the club, was that hard to take?
A. It was the hardest decision I have had to make in football. I could have stayed on for another year but there's no sentiment in this game and I knew I was getting older. There are insecurities later in your career when you know your legs aren't the same. You have to accept you aren't the player you were and it comes to everyone. The timing was right. I was in tears when I made the decision but you are always better to go with your gut feeling. I left on a high and have great memories from my time in the Irish League.
Q. Have you been back to the club?
A. I've been back for a Legends night and was inducted into a Hall of Fame. The function suite was packed, Jackie Fullerton was compere and it was a night to remember me. I've been recognised for my services to the club and it's just simply a special club with special people. I was hoping to get over for the Coleraine Irish Cup semi-final but then the lockdown happened. I'm in regular contact with boys at the club but it's not just Ballymena, the whole Irish League were terrific with me and I'm thankful I have developed good friendships through different clubs.
Q. What has been your greatest football memory?
A. Captaining my local club was special. I scored the goal against Greenock which got them promoted. At Gretna we won the Championship and I played 35 out of 38 games. During the close season I was told I could find a new club but I ended up playing in the Premier League and scored the winner for Gretna against Dundee United in the last minute to give them their first top flight win.
The goal I scored in the League Cup final for Ballymena United was my most special moment on a pitch. The game was on the Saturday and during that week I was due to come over and train with my team-mates at Seaview. I had spoken to my mum and she told me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I had to go to training and kept it to myself.
I didn't tell anyone, even David Jeffrey until I spoke to him after the game. As I celebrated I jumped up in the air and as I hit the ground the emotion hit me like an absolute ton of bricks. I never felt anything like it and you can see me pulling my shirt up over my head. It was a flood of emotion. My mum Stella was in the crowd and I didn't know what the future was going to hold.
Thankfully, everything is all good and she's happy and healthy. Only a few of my team-mates discovered the reason for my emotion at that moment. Mum and dad travelled over on the boat to follow me, like they have always done in my career. You need that backing and stability in your life. Your parents deal with all your insecurities and confidence issues. My dad Allan has all my memorabilia. Outside of my family David Jeffrey has been another big influence, a special guy.
Q. Who was the best player you played with and toughest opponent?
A. At Stranraer we had Danny Fox who went on to play for Celtic and Kyle Naughton who ended up going to Swansea and Tottenham. Michael McGovern was in goals the day I scored the volley to get us promotion. But I'd say David Graham, who I played with at Stranraer and Gretna. He has been promoted to the Premier League more times than anyone, with Hamilton, Dunfermline and Gretna and he actually plays for H&W Welders now. He was unplayable at Stranraer, a genius with pace and brilliant goalscorer, before he moved to Gretna.
Two guys who I loved sharing a pitch and dressing room with were Tony Kane and Jim Ervin. It's probably because I saw a lot of myself in them... guys who rolled their sleeves up and gave an honest performance. Good honest pros who had good and bad days but you knew you could rely on them and you would take them into battle with you every day of the week. I must give a special mention to my mate Cutchy, he was a genius, someone who scored goals out of nothing. I wish I had him for a few more years at Ballymena.
Opponent wise, Scott Brown, Barry Ferguson, Steven Davis, Pedro Mendes, Shunsuke Nakamura, take your pick! In the Irish League, I enjoyed battling with the Lowry brothers, Philip and Stephen, Ruairi Harkin, Michael Gault, Robert Garrett, Declan Caddell and Jamie Mulgrew, a smashing player. I also felt Barry Johnston and Ryan Catney were a great midfield partnership for Cliftonville.
Q. Looking back on your career, what would you have done differently?
A. The obvious answer is to try my luck in England but we have seen players go into that massive goldfish bowl and just get lost to the game. In life, as in football, you trust your gut instinct and if I look at what I have achieved I'm happy. I played at every level in Scotland, played in Europe for Gretna and am hopefully well regarded by my previous clubs. I would possibly have done my coaching badges earlier. I have just my Pro Licence to do and I would encourage players to do those earlier as it helps you understand the game and your role within the team.
Q. How supportive have your family been?
A. Mum and dad moved me around quite a lot so I could continue my career. They have followed me and backed me at every club I've been at, including Ballymena. I am hugely indebted to them. Without their support I wouldn't have enjoyed the career I did. I'm married to Kirsty and have two daughters Macie (11) and Alli (4). Macie is into her netball and my family aren't really interested in football so it's a bit of mystery why I got involved in it. Macie has also started curling in a local club. Kirsty loves the peace and quiet when I'm away playing football. Maybe not seeing each other is the secret to a happy marriage (laughs)!
Q. Was your mum's cancer scare the most difficult time of your life?
A. I've had some challenging times. My dad's father, known as Taffy, passed away on Hogmanay years ago when I was playing for Stranraer. My parents had popped out to get some supplies when I got the call from Uncle Ian to say he had suffered a heart attack while in his delivery lorry. One of the toughest things I've had to do was tell my dad his father had passed away. I was a just teenager and it was a horrible experience for all of us. I think the insecurities near the end of my own playing career were also hard for me to accept.
Q. Can you share a funny moment from your career?
A. We were away at Stirling Albion and winning 1-0. Billy McDonald was infamous because Paul Gascoigne nutmegged him when he was playing Partick Thistle and he tries to take Gazza out with a huge swipe. Billy gave away a free kick, got sent off and Stirling scored. Our manager Billy McClaren was the nicest guy in the world away from football but between 2pm and 5pm he was a renowned maniac. I heard this commotion in the shower area and I was a curious 18-year-old. Lo and behold, a fully clothed Billy McClaren with his baseball cap and tracksuit on was wrestling on the ground with Billy McDonald who was naked apart from a pair of flip flops. That image of a fully clothed man fighting a naked one still hasn't left me! Thankfully, it was a one-off.
Q. I'm sure you're missing football, how are you finding retirement?
A. Myself and Gary are still registered as players so we are still getting our football fix. We want to produce local talent that will go on and play for the first team. Unfortunately, the club will be in the bottom league but they did play Rangers this season in the Scottish Cup, giving them gate and television money.
Q. How has the coronavirus affected your life?
A. The sooner we can get to some sort of normality the better because it's tough for everyone, mentally and financially. We've been making progress thankfully. Our region has not suffered the worst. I've been fortunate to work from home but in the evenings, I haven't been devoting as much time to my role as head of youth at Stranraer. I coach during the week and am involved with the reserve team on the Saturday and youth team on Sundays. Like a lot of people I've been missing football. We are creatures of habit and that routine has disappeared. Football is a release from everyday life and we haven't had that. But is the game worth risking lives for? No it isn't.
Q. Who would be your top three dinner guests?
A. David Beckham who was my idol growing up. Michael Jordan as I loved basketball and I've been enjoying the 'Last Dance' documentary about him. Man on Fire is my favourite film and I like Denzel Washington films so he would also get an invite.
Date of birth: October 7, 1981
Place of birth: Stranraer
Previous clubs: Stranraer, Gretna, Greenock Morton, Ballymena United, Hurlford United, Darvel, Dalbeattie Star.
Ballymena United record: 254 appearances, 49 goals.
Current position: Head of youth development, Stranraer FC.