The saga of Ballymena’s pitch has spilled well beyond the whitewash and into the bigger public consciousness such have been the words written about it. There is not much I can say about it apart from continued bewilderment that the County Antrim Shield final was postponed at such late notice. It was clear it was never going to happen. As the title hints, this is not about the pitch.
Throughout all our footballing lives there have been teams that we all view with what shall we say…..basic indifference. Let’s go with that. Nothing they can do has ever or you feel will, raise any interest from you. Perhaps extending this to England might be a good exercise to illuminate the point. Amongst those in the top two divisions that might fit in here would probably be the likes of Stoke, Huddersfield and Middlesbrough. When I was a kid it tended to be Coventry for a lot of people, though a run of mind-bending kits tended to hold my interest.
Teams that don’t get you going due to a number of reasons. Few exciting players historically, grim place to go perhaps, bad memories, disliking the team’s colours or logo, manager or players on a general and rolling basis. These might be possible factors. Disliking could be the wrong word because that is just a bit more than indifference, isn’t it? Unusually for football, it was nothing personal. Just one of those things.
In Northern Ireland, Ballymena were always that team for me. I think watching them in a 1978 Irish Cup semi-final was probably the start of it. It was one of the worst games I ever watched and you may well wonder why Crusaders didn’t catch some of the flak. As the years followed I could not remember any players that set me on fire. They won the cup three times in the 80s I believe and that didn’t help even though I like to see different teams win different things.
Whilst I have no problems with the town I was never a great fan of the Showgrounds as it was. For me, it was a football pitch shoehorned into an event complex which to a degree still holds water. Their constant churn of managers also used to annoy me. Perhaps a number of ex Glentoran/Linfield players always going there at the end of their careers gave them a retirement home aura in my head. Memorable goals, matches or characters never really cut across my line of sight through Colin O’Neill might be disappointed with that. Any players that did interest you usually didn’t stay long enough to heighten club identity. Neil Candlish for example I liked but he went off to Glentoran.
Whatever happens to Ballymena this year with regards to trophies will make no difference to my view that they are already my team of the year. This will have been written before last Saturday’s League Cup final. If only for nothing else they will have removed my lifetime of indifference to them. Like last season I imagined they might be battling it out with Glentoran for sixth place. I think it is fair to say they have surprised a few this season.
For the first time in years, I think I would be familiar with all their players rather than an amorphous light blue haze. They play organised, decent football and seem very unlikely to be susceptible to off days, surprises and any sort of general malaise. It has been well noted how the managerial team actively identified and acquired the key components of the team to do this. Players who perhaps cut little ice in previous clubs now look like the sort of players everybody would want in their team.
Of course manager David Jeffrey must take huge credit for this. The big undertow here, of course, is the oft-quoted lazy cry that anybody could do it at Linfield. I wasn’t sure what to make of his move there a few years ago. Certainly, his personality could light up more than a few places, something even his enemies would not deny. But I don’t expect Ballymena to vanish into anonymity anytime soon. Even simple stuff like their away kit looks one of the classiest in the league. Players like Steven McCullough, Jonny Addis, Jude Winchester and Adam Lecky look like players reborn. Youngsters like Kofi Balmer and Leroy Millar are coming through the ranks looking the business.
Ballymena, of course, are not out of the league and what a story that would be if they did win it. But it must be great fun being a fan of them at the moment. The biggest change I believe to mention is that I consider them to be so much more an active rather than a passive team in the Irish League these days. They are forcing pace and dictating things in a way that they have never done before in my lifetime. They are just not simply Jackie Fullerton’s favourite team anymore which for many was a huge identity point. The light blue touch paper has been lit and I don’t expect it to go out anytime soon.
So absolutely, this pitch business is nonsense and no doubt is hampering them in all sorts of ways. One wonders what may happen when they do not have such issues but for me, Ballymena’s pitch to be a leading and prominent club in Northern Ireland is well and truly underway.