It’s almost upon us. The Irish Cup Final, a day redolent with the mystique of over a century of footballing history, plays host to a team from Fermanagh for the very first time.
Ballinamallard have had to dig deep to get here with penalty shoot out wins against Dungannon and Warrenpoint. But now, with his side on the brink of the big day, Ducks boss Harry McConkey admits he isn’t immune to the romance of the occasion.
“It’s something you always dream of. As a kid you remember cup finals at this time of the year. Those things stir you and you dream of walking out with your team. And here we are now ourselves going to Windsor Park.
“We were up there on Sunday for a familiarisation session. We went into the changing rooms and we were laughing because they said they were going redress the walls with pictures of our team. We looked up and saw Roy Carroll and Mark Stafford in Linfield and I said to Craig Stanfield, ‘You don’t need to change it, there’s two Ballinamallard boys there already!’
“We got the players on the pitch for a light sessions. We got familiar with the run of the ball and the distances for our set plays. We were there for an hour and half in total and it was a very worthwhile exercise.
“It’s going to be a pressurised occasion and there’ll be a lot of things for young players to confront, and even experienced players who might not have been to an Irish Cup final before. There is a bit of razzmatazz about these days.”
The pressure of expectation won’t be on the Mallards, that’s for sure. Available at 8/1 ahead of the game, the final is as close to a foregone conclusion as the bookmakers can make it. Crusaders are 1/4 on to claim only their fourth ever Irish Cup and their first title in a decade.
The money men have their minds made up, but McConkey does see some chinks in the Crues armour which offer some grounds for optimism.
“They are a formidable team with some quality individuals. I think there’s been a bit of a transition this year in Stevie Baxter’s side and I don’t think they have flowed as well as they have in previous years.
“They are incredibly focused. They’ve beaten Linfield, Glentoran, Ballymena and Coleraine [en route to the final]. Those are incredible opponents they have turned over, and turned over well. It’s as if they have a real hunger for the Irish Cup this year. They haven’t won it since 2009 and this is their path to Europe [Europa League first round] now as well. Stevie will be determined and ruthless on the day as to how they execute their game against us.
“We’ve looked at quite a few clips and they’ve gone through a fair bit of change and that can affect confidence. They’ve had goalkeeper issues too. They’re waiting for Sean O’Neill to recover from a hamstring injury. Gerard Doherty, their first choice keeper is out and Harry Doherty is a young keeper who we have seen having a tough enough time recently.
“Like any manager you look for flaws of any sort. But obviously we have to be at our very best to counter the threats of [David] Cushley, [Paul] Heatley and [Jordan] Owens and players breaking from midfield.
“But if we get them on the back foot we do think there’s an opportunity there for us to ask some questions of them.”
The Seaview men are known for their direct style of play, while Ballinamallard favour a more passing game. Stephen Baxter will be urging his men to impose their style on the game from the off. Harry McConkey recognises that, but he doesn’t want to be drawn into trying to nullify the Premiership side at the expense of his own team’s strengths.
“You have to be very careful. We have said we will stick by our principles. We encourage our team to play football. But you also have to be adaptable and I think the most important thing is not to get caught in the headlights. We have to get out of the traps quickly. That can be just by retaining the ball, which we did against Warrenpoint when we were concerned they would come out and run the show.
“I think that could frustrate Crusaders who are quite often a direct team. They don’t take ten passes, they will go direct with one or two and look for second phase ball off Jordan Owens. We feel if we keep them out of our box we can frustrate them and the longer we do that the more we can grow into the game ourselves.”
Ballinamallard’s bid to keep Crues out the box though took a blow when Sean McEvoy elected to field with the Republic of Ireland u17s in the European Championships this week. That decision has robbed McConkey of a young defender rapidly making a name for himself.
“I was the one advocating that Sean go for these trials and got his time off to prepare and play in these matches,” said the Mallards supremo. “What nobody saw coming was that we would make the Irish Cup final. I said at the time that we would worry about it if it came to it, but it was never going to be my decision. It had to be his.
“It’s a horrible situation for the kid to be in, but he’s got the quality to play at a higher level and this is a wonderful stage for him in the Euros. I’ll be going down to see him Thursday 9th in Tallaght when they play Belgium and we wish him all the very best. He’s done tremendous to get us to where we are. I know he’ll be rooting for us big time and we’re rooting for him.”
McConkey is less philosophical about the loss of Josh McIlwaine who will sit out the final after being red carded against Carrick.
“It’s a heartbreak for Josh, he’s a young cub who’s come through the club and the fact that he could have be disciplined according to the rule with a yellow card for petulance rather than violent conduct when the opposition are clearly saying it wasn’t has left us a bit bemused and upset with the severity of the punishment. It’s way beyond what it should be.
“If you saw the performances of the front three who got us here in the last two rounds, to lose two thirds for them is a very harsh blow. It’s something that’s beyond my control.
But, like every game we’ve had this year, it presents an opportunity to someone else. My focus is on the players who are available to me and maximising what we get from them.
“Josh used to give us a great defensive quality in the box and a great attacking threat in the other box. Against a physical team like Crusaders his loss is a blow to us.
“But we have great pace in our team like Robbie Hume and Darragh McBrien who could ask questions of their defenders who might prefer to play against a bigger lad.”
Apart from that McConkey expects to have a full hand to select from with only midfielder Gary Henderson still an injury doubt.
“Gary picked up an injury a week and a half ago and we thought he play on Saturday, but he did a work out and had to get Robbie Hume to drive the car home. He’s fighting against the clock and that’s another worry because he’s a great man to have as a warrior to kill the game off.”
Posted: 8:30 pm May 3, 2019