Ballymena United – whilst they have tasted life in the lower league due to the mid – nineties divisional restructuring, as far as I know they have never been relegated in recent history. It is that I think that has me thinking of them as an Irish League version of Everton. Mostly a middling team but rarely in deep trouble. Please God that won’t upset their manager. If it does it was Mark Sidebottom that told me to say it.
Just on all things ‘manager’ they generally have had the hottest of managerial hot seats. I think they have had something like twenty- four managers (including caretakers) in the last forty odd years. For a while they seemed to be on their own personal battle with Glenavon as to who could get through the most managers. We’ll come back to that later but certainly putting your name on the door was hardly worth it.
The Showgrounds is an interesting place. Appropriately enough, it has a touch of the rural about it as it nestles at the foot of Slemish mountain. Before the present back door egress from the stadium the only route to the ground was down the residential main road from the town. In the seventies and eighties when routine football violence was a part of everyday Saturday life this could be a hairy enough place to be for an away supporter. I have more memories of running down it than walking down it.
I liked the idea of the ground just being at the edge of town. You can have a bit of crack in the town and walk out to the ground. Nicely situated, it is also well placed beside the motorway and the Fairhill Shopping centre where one can drop off wifely creatures. Before its present incarnation the ground had a very uninspiring chicken run covered terrace in the place of the present host stand. It would have been similar to Portadown’s and indeed in the same place. Though these areas would become places of lore you wouldn’t have loved it. The empty spaces behind the nets and the tyre track surrounding the pitch meant that for many the Showgrounds would not be a favourite.
The ground’s most famous moment though of course was far removed from football. I think it was 1993 that the local council decided that no ‘devil’ music from ELO would be played on a Sunday and the concert never happened. Mr. Blue Sky did not become Mr. Sky Blue. Nowadays of course it hosts the Milk Cup final and has one of the best stands in the Irish League.
This all fits in well with their present day status. They have won the cups and shields recently but can generally be expected to find themselves in one final or another. Many of us looking on are delighted to see this as they have a serious well of support. Yes, the employment centres of Wrightbus, Gallahers, Michelin, Pattons and Moypark may not be as buoyant as other times but they are the source of strong support and it is good to see. Definite respect from the rest of the league for that. Of course plenty happened before the arrival of manager David Jeffrey but there is little doubt of his rallying capabilities and his appointment to Ballymena seems a natural fit. He very much defines the club now.
Going back again to the previous managerial turnover this sometimes I felt hindered the club’s profile. Whilst they have had their fair share of good players they may have suffered from a lack of ‘characters’ over the years. Kenny Shiels and Colin O’ Neill come to mind for the latter term but beyond them, a lot of names have not registered beyond the Seven Towers roundabout perhaps as much as they might.
Names that strike me over the years would have been Tom and John Sloan, one blond, one bald, and Jim Platt. The man who won the 1981 Irish Cup final had the most wonderful Irish League name – Sammy McQuiston. From the day he was baptised he was always destined to be an Irish League man. Others that resonate include Gerry Mullan, Stephen Penney and future poacher turned gamekeeper, winger and referee Dessie Loughery. Nigel Worthington of course deserves a mention and Jeff Wright started his civil prominence in the town by patrolling the left wing. He also allegedly doubled as a Tom Petty tribute act. John Heron always struck me as a conundrum – was he more a farmer or a footballer? He was indeed both and an effective stopper for many years.
Since we have mentioned the eighties it will bring a tear to the eye for many a Skyblue with that decade bringing three Irish Cup wins in 1981, 1984 and 1989. The local media tend to let this slip as Glentoran indeed won five of the same beasts in that period but this was a great achievement for the sons of Slemish.
This brings me onto their rural presence. To many Belfast fans they represent the country (as in rural) more than any other provincial team and I believe Ballymena’s fans like this responsibility – certainly with their sheep in suspenders banners they do not shrink from any ‘McCooey’ abuse about ovine courtship. To think the local council were worried about ELO!
The club is a very solid member of not only the league but that whole area of County Antrim. On the communications and publicity front they are better armed than most. Manager David Jeffrey is as much a PR man as he is a manager. Commentator/ broadcaster/fan/ showbiz legend Jackie Fullerton talks them up no end and Bele Tele columnist and wit Billy Weir ensure we will continue to hear plenty yet from Warden Street. Local fans as well have a fairly accurate perception of it as being the one ground where you are least likely to see a scoreless draw, but that could be yet another hand grenade thrown in by ‘Markee boy’.