Dreams often come true; just ask Whitey Anderson.
He once had a vision of little, unfashionable Ballinamallard United playing in the Irish Premiership and, against all the odds, the County Fermanagh outfit took that historic step back in 2012.
The club’s rise to fame is on par with one of the famous Roy of the Rovers epics in the legendary comic strip, when a fictional footballer — later to become manager — was involved in some outrageous and questionable adventures.
But after years of pain, tears, hard graft and sheer determination, the Mallards did manage to scribble their own little chapter in the rich fabric of Irish League football, with Whitey at the helm.
Brought up in Cookstown, work commitments took him to Fermanagh when he was 17 years of age. When he joined Ballinamallard in 1985, you simply couldn’t have penned the script.
“The day we were promoted, following a home win over Bangor, I was in total shock,” he recalls.
“Although we were favourites to beat them, we never expected Newry City to lose at Limavady United.
“It was a surreal moment. We didn’t know what was happening until the Vice-Chairman walked across the pitch to say, ‘Whitey, you’ve just won the Championship and have been promoted to the Premiership’.
“Instead of basking in glory, the hard work started that day. Our Chairman, Dessie Quinn, and everyone else worked extremely hard over the summer to get our facilities up to scratch. The next thing, I was rubbing shoulders with the likes of David Jeffrey and the rest of the top managers.
“When we went to places like Windsor Park and The Oval, it wasn’t something we as a club feared, although we had the utmost respect for every team.
“I can still remember our first match against the Blues at Windsor Park. We beat them 3-1. Someone said to me I was very calm after it. I admitted I was still in a state of bewilderment. In saying that, I wasn’t going to get too high and mighty about it anyway.
“When I walked into the press room and saw so many media people, I thought to myself, ‘I’m only used to one press man at games’.
“We were top of the Premiership after the first round of fixtures, but all I had in my head was having enough points on the board to stay in the division and avoid relegation.
“It was a fantastic milestone when you look back at it, a team coming from a village of 1,700 people competing with the best in the Irish League.”
But it was inevitable that Belfast’s big guns would come sniffing for United’s star men.
“That summer, Linfield were after Mark Stafford, Portadown were looking at Davy Kee and Glenavon were interested in Leo Carters and Jay McCartney,” he says. “We did well to keep Stafford for so long. He had actually agreed terms with David Jeffrey, but we managed to squeeze another season out of him.
“There was no one more delighted than me when he got the chance to play with Linfield for five years and have such a successful time, but we did what we thought was right for our club at the time.
“We had a good side — Alvin Rouse, McCartney, Stafford, Chris Curran, Carters, Kee, Mark McConkey and Danny Keohane. Andy Crawford and Ryan Campbell would run all day up front.
“At the end of our first season, we lost Chris (Curran) to Cliftonville. He came through our youth system and went to Manchester United for two years before returning to us.
“Then Carters was out for a few months injured, Keohane moved to London and McConkey retired. Within a season, we lost a fair chunk of the side.
“I remember winning at Cliftonville that year and I think it was the only time they lost at home because they went on to win the League title. They were a great side, managed by the late Tommy Breslin.
“In my time as manager, we stayed in the Premiership for four seasons — we certainly were not a one-season wonder. We finished 10th in our second season and ninth in the third.
“My last season finished in a bit of a shambles which hinged on a row involving Carrick Rangers and Warrenpoint Town, who were caught up in a relegation battle.
“It revolved around (Carrick boss) Gary Haveron, who apparently was sitting on the touchline beside or behind the dugout, when he was allegedly suspended.
“Warrenpoint lodged a protest, but it wasn’t dealt with by the IFA, they kept deferring the decision. Warrenpoint were duly relegated and Carrick survived as they finished 10th. We ended up in the Play-Off place.
“The shenanigans went on and on, with protests and counter protests. It was a real mess. We faced Institute in the Play-Off but, because of all the controversy, the games didn’t take place until mid-June.
“I travelled over to watch Northern Ireland in the 2016 European Championships in France and had to come back for the double-header. We ended up remaining in the division by the skin of our teeth.
“Although we won 2-1 away from home, we required an equaliser 20 seconds from the end to earn a 3-3 draw at Ferney Park — it was that close.”
The highlight of that final season for Whitey was beating Linfield 1-0 at Windsor Park in David Healy’s first game in charge.
“We had a good record against the Blues, beating them three times in four years,” he smiles. “It was my final game against them as I had already taken the decision to step down at the end of that season.
“Healy was named as their new boss and supposedly wasn’t to take charge until the next match, but he was there and, in the second half, he appeared in the dugout so, as far as I was concerned, it was his first game in charge.
“I followed Northern Ireland for years and Healy is an absolute legend, so it was a big thrill for me to stand only yards from him on the touchline.”
But Whitey was more than just a manager to Ballinamallard — he worked as hard off the pitch as he did on it, since joining the club in 1985.
“A decision was taken in 1996 to revamp the youth section of the football club,” he recalls. “As a B Division team, we felt we were not getting the support required, so we decided to develop a youth programme and produce our own players. In my opinion, that decision was pivotal to all that followed in the following years which included the improvement of facilities, the structure of the playing staff and the promotion to the Premiership.
“The overall infrastructure of the club improved beyond recognition. The youth section was central to all that. When we were promoted to the Irish League, most of our players came through the system or the mini-soccer programme.
“Youth development is not rocket science, but the club benefited from hard work, commitment and a bit of vision by many people — and a lot of volunteers. The founder members deserved the utmost respect.
“When we had aspirations to bring Irish League football to County Fermanagh, a lot of people laughed at us but we made it happen. To be honest, I’m as proud of what I achieved off the pitch as I did on it.
“One particular situation sticks in my head. The Sports Council invited applications for clubs to develop floodlighting, but it had a very tight timescale. I decided to give it a go. I drove from Omagh to Lisbellaw to see an architect to help plan and fill in the application. He did it free of charge.
“I then drove to Enniskillen to lodge the application and wrote a £300 personal cheque, although the club reimbursed me. We managed to secure the floodlights at the 11th hour, but it was a significant move because two years later we won promotion to the Premiership.
“If we hadn’t had those lights, we wouldn’t have been in the Premier League unless we were prepared to ground-share, so that’s something that I’m very proud of.
“I also take great pride in the fact that I managed Ballinamallard at every age group — Irish Youth League at Under-18 level, the Irish League Second Division, the First Division, the Championship and the Premier League. I’m not quite sure if a lot of people have done that. It has been a great journey, the friendships you forge and the memories you make are second to none.”