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Irish League was the big winner this week, now hopefully we can get the new season up and running soon!

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Windsor Park during Friday night's Irish Cup final

Windsor Park during Friday night's Irish Cup final

Windsor Park during Friday night's Irish Cup final

It was pretty strange to be at an Irish Cup Final on a Friday night in a virtually empty stadium at the end of July - but at least proper, up-and-at-'em football was back.

Glentoran came into the game against Ballymena United as firm favourites and not many outside of east Antrim would have given David Jeffrey's men much of a chance but the Sky Blues obviously forgot to read the script and started the game like a steam engine with a massive point to prove and keen to make up for their below-par performance in the Semi-Final.

Cup Finals have a habit of throwing up shocks and, as the clock ticked down, the idea of the underdogs lifting the trophy became an increasing possibility.

Just like both Semi-Finals on Monday, 90 minutes couldn't separate the teams and it had to go into extra-time but, on this occasion, there was no need for the dreaded lottery of penalty kicks as, with just four minutes remaining, Robbie McDaid stuck a dagger into the hearts of everyone associated with Ballymena.

Although he was well marshalled in the game, in one flash of brilliance he showed why he is the definition of a striker supreme by stealing a march on his markers and converting Ciaran O'Connor's slick pass.

Tremendous credit must go to every single player from both clubs who gave their absolute all, pushing their tired bodies to the absolute limit and beyond and, while Patrick McClean was once again the Glentoran star performer, I thought Leroy Millar was immense for Ballymena - although my own personal man of the match was referee Tim Marshall.

How refreshing it was to see a ref with the bottle to totally ignore the divers and conmen who go down for no genuine reason.

I've been shouting from the rooftops for ages for refs to stand up to these cheats and, at long last, we seem to be seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

Tim kept the game flowing and the bluffers soon got the message that it was time to get to their feet again and that can only be good for the future of our game.

So huge congratulations to Glentoran on winning the Irish Cup, albeit in somewhat bizarre circumstances, and sincere commiserations to Ballymena who came agonisingly close to upsetting the odds.

In truth, though, it was Irish League football that was the real big winner this week and now that we've got a wee taste of it, fingers crossed we get the new season up and running as soon as we possibly can.

It's crucial to keep players' mental health in mind

Though we still have no definitive dates for the commencement of the 2020-21 Irish League campaign, one club has already started pre-season training - which left a certain Mr Keith Gillespie with his legs virtually hanging off him.

FC Mindwell is the team and it's all the brainchild of Epic Promotions supremo and business entrepreneur Brian Adair.

Brian has pulled together a group of lads who played at a high level and who hold a real burning desire to pull on the boots again.

It was quickly apparent that, having had that unique focus and buzz as a general routine on a Saturday afternoon, many players' mental health has suffered as a consequence of it being taken away from them virtually overnight.

The goal and aims of FC Mindwell - who have an experienced management team and a squad of some 25 former players, including ex-internationals - will be to raise further awareness of mental health issues relating to various addictions, marriage break-ups and the effect all of that can have on a person's wellbeing.

Former Liverpool goalkeeper Chris Kirkland has already been installed as the team's main ambassador, while lots of household names in the world of football - including our very own Keith Gillespie - are pro-active members and the club's first charitable fundraiser is a scheduled golf day at Lurgan Golf Club on Friday, August 14, when the likes of David May and Jason McAteer will be playing a part.

It's always refreshing to see former footballers and personnel coming together in an effort to not only help raise awareness but also to generate some much-needed funds for charity.

That shows a side to sportspeople that many never get to see and I wish them every success - see you on the 14th!

Cup of cheer for Irish FA

I'm a firm believer in that old saying 'if the cap fits then wear it' and goodness knows there has been no one more scathing of the Irish Football Association than myself - particularly whenever I felt they were worthy of constructive criticism and guilty of poor governance  and decision-making. 

However, with regard to this week's Sadler's Peaky Blinder Irish Cup, let me go on record as one of the first to congratulate the Irish FA on their superb staging of two major days of proper live football in what can only be described as incredibly challenging times.

To their credit, their attention to detail first and foremost with regard to people's health and wellbeing - as well as all the measures taken to maintain social distancing - was exemplary and carried out with military precision.

I also feel the IFA are to be commended in showing the necessary drive, endeavour and conviction to get the matches all played to a finish and to have the most prestigious knockout Cup competition in Irish League football played to a conclusion on the pitch and not decided in a committee room - that pleased me big time.

In fact, even IFA President David Martin himself climbed several steps to my commentary point to present me with a bar of chocolate during Monday's Semi-Finals and I can tell you it was much appreciated on what transpired to be a long, long day with both ties going to penalties!

Also just while I'm in the mood for handing out the plaudits, top marks must go to the Windsor Park ground staff. Despite the heavy rain for most of the day, the pitch was in superb condition and, better still, was still in excellent nick even after the back-to-back Semi-Finals went the full distance.

Nevertheless, there always has to be one gripe and mine would be that we didn't have an acceptable number of fans inside the 18,000 all-seater stadium for any of the matches.

To have no supporters at the Semi-Finals and just 500 at Friday's decider was a disappointment but otherwise it's a huge pat on the back for the IFA for excelling over this past week.

Belfast Telegraph