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'It's not about looking back': David Jeffrey aims to end Ballymena United's 31 year wait to end Irish Cup pain


Serial winner: David Jeffrey lifted seven Irish Cups as manager of Linfield

Serial winner: David Jeffrey lifted seven Irish Cups as manager of Linfield

Serial winner: David Jeffrey lifted seven Irish Cups as manager of Linfield

David Jeffrey does not want history to be a burden for his Ballymena United players when they attempt to bring the Irish Cup back to the Showgrounds for the first time since 1989.

It was a Paul Hardy goal then that was enough for the Sky Blues to beat Larne in the final. Jeffrey, though, is intent on looking forward to this evening's meeting with Glentoran at Windsor Park and not back.

"It has been a long time, and the Ballymena wait for an Irish Cup is almost as long as Cliftonville's 41-year wait for the trophy," says Jeffrey.

"I know it is 31 years, but I see this as a new opportunity, and it's not about looking back. It's about looking forward and giving of our best, and I can assure all Ballymena United fans that is what our team will do."

Jeffrey is a man who will always be associated with Linfield. He was a Blues fan growing up and became a player, captain, manager and legend at Windsor Park, winning a remarkable 31 trophies - including seven Irish Cups - in 17 years at the helm, but it is evident that he now has the tightest of bonds with Ballymena after taking charge in 2016.

In his press briefing ahead of the final, he didn't want to discuss the prospect of an eighth Irish Cup success for himself. He felt the joy of those around him after Monday's dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over Coleraine and wants to help bring some more to his players, the board and United fans.

"The win on Monday was reward for five weeks of knocking our absolute pans in, following new protocols, having to adapt and do things in a different way," said Jeffrey.

"For every player and member of staff, the feeling was one of simple satisfaction that all of the hard work, planning and preparation had finally come together.

"I could see the joy and happiness of other people at Ballymena and I was proud to have played a part in bringing that happiness and joy to the club."

From arriving at the Showgrounds, Jeffrey has been on an upward curve, leading Ballymena to League Cup success and a title challenge which ended with a runners-up finish to Linfield and a victory in Europe.

Then came this season with the Braidmen languishing in tenth in the curtailed Premiership and losing a County Antrim Shield final 2-1 to Cliftonville when the Reds scored twice in injury time.

Jeffrey admits questioning why he returned to management during those tough times.

He said: "The season was horrible, and there were a number of times I maybe asked myself 'why did I come back to put myself through this again?' because, compared to the first three years, it was a challenge, so after we won the penalty shoot-out, I was just so thankful and proud of the players.

"We had a horrible season after progressing in Europe in the summer but there were very good reasons for that.

"We had an horrendous list of injuries and suspensions, and let's also not forget we didn't have the best of fortune at times.

"I think of the County Antrim Shield and losing to Cliftonville with two goals in added time - that was a cruel experience.

"To me, you've got to be very objective and honest, and it was a horrible league season. But the league is finished and, despite all of the previous difficulties, we've got ourselves to an Irish Cup final and I think that has given the Ballymena community a lift."

Jeffrey is used to big crowds in Cup finals. Tonight only 500 spectators will be at Windsor Park, with the IFA handing out 250 tickets to each club to distribute how they see fit.

The Ballymena boss revealed some of his players have given up their limited allocation for family members in order that more supporters can be at the game.

"We were given 250 tickets as a club and the response of the players has been fantastic in terms of sharing those tickets among fans," said the 57-year-old.

"We had a very strict allocation, for some it was two, others just one, and these are players who have been working the last five weeks to get themselves into a final.

"The number of players who texted me to say 'it's OK, David. I'd rather mine went to a supporter', so there's a real sense of togetherness which has been borne out of Covid-19."

In his job as a senior social worker, Jeffrey has maintained perspective around the coronavirus pandemic.

When football was called to a halt in March, he was keen for European qualification money to be shared around Irish League clubs if the season had to be ended prematurely.

He didn't want to discuss that issue ahead of the final but, on big spending opponents Glentoran, he had this to say: "I watched their semi-final with Cliftonville and they were most impressive.

"We will go into this game as underdogs and Glentoran will be favourites, and so they should be with the investment they have made."

Belfast Telegraph