Last semi-final meeting with Ports holds bad memories for United fans

THE very thought of Ballymena United's previous Irish Cup semi-final meeting with Portadown is enough to bring United fans out in a cold sweat.

The year was 1999 and with Portadown struggling in the Irish Premier League, Sky Blue fans fancied an experienced United side to reach their first final since the fabled success of 10 years before.

What followed was an abject disaster - a 2-0 defeat at the Oval with a performance which would rank among the worst displays in many years.

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Full-back Mark Carlisle, the club’s record appearance holder was in the United side that day and he admits it ranks as one of the lowest points of his 11 years at the Showgrounds.

“Strangely, I don’t remember that much about the actual game - I think I’ve probably tried to erase it from my memory!” he laughs.

“We might even have been slight favourites as Portadown weren’t going that well but for whatever reason we didn’t turn up at all.

“Brian Strain put them ahead with a header and even at that point we never looked as though we would get back into it.

“Then as we were pushing forward looking for an equaliser, Portadown broke down the left and Richard Clarke cut inside me and fired an absolute clinker into the top corner - game over.

“It was a huge opportunity missed to get to an Irish Cup final and I remember saying to someone afterwards that it might be my only chance to play in a final gone - I was right.”

If the disappointment of losing on the day wasn’t enough, worse was to follow a few days later in what became known as ‘the final that never was’ - the decider not being played over the eligibility row involving Cliftonville striker Simon Gribben, which saw Portadown awarded the cup without kicking a ball.

Mark remains philosophical about the drama: “I suppose from the club’s point of view there would have been benefits like more prize money and getting to play in Europe, but looking at it purely from a playing point of view, I would have hated to have got my hands on a winner’s medal in those circumstances.

“I know I didn’t win much in all my years at the Showgrounds but anything I did win was done on the pitch and I took more satisfaction from that than if we had been handed a trophy by default.”

For Carlisle, who is still involved at the Showgrounds as assistant manager of United’s youth team, that semi-final defeat has helped shape his thinking from a coaching perspective.

“We always tell young players in a semi-final final or final to go out and make sure they give their best and come back with no regrets - not like we did in 1999.

“I’ve had a wee funny feeling about Ballymena in this year’s competition - you look back at things like Ards’ late miss and Dwayne Nelson’s save in the replay against Glenavon and you begin to think ‘this might be our year. I certainly hope it is,” added Mark.