Opinion: Cup draw makes January even more crucial

If you didn’t already subscribe to the theory that January will prove pivotal to the course of Ballymena United’s season, then last week’s Tennent’s Irish Cup draw will have done little to change your mind.

Ballymena United manager Glenn Ferguson and his Linfield counterpart David Healy at last week's Tennent's Irish Cup draw. Also included are Irish FA President Jim Shaw and Rod McCrory from Tennents NI. Picture: Press Eye.

Ballymena supporters have become accustomed in recent seasons to having an extended run in the country’s Blue Riband knockout competition - the earliest United have gone out of the competition under Glenn Ferguson’s leadership was a sixth round exit at the hands of Coleraine in 2013.

But Ballymena’s stellar form in knockout competitions is likely to be tested to the full when they face Linfield at the opening stage in the new year.

I’m not going to claim to have some sort of Mystic Meg-style psychic powers but I certainly wasn’t surprised when the news filtered through of Ballymena’s impending trip to the national stadium.

On the morning of the draw last week, I was glancing over Ballymena’s fixtures in the coming weeks and noted two home league meetings with the Blues inside just over a month, as well as a potential County Antrim Shield final clash.

In the middle of that period comes the fifth round of the Irish Cup and remember thinking to myself, given the strange quirks of fate that football tends to throw up, it wouldn’t surprise me if Ballymena were to meet Linfield again in the cup. The rest, as they say, is history.

Let’s be thankful for small mercies, that the fact Irish Cup ties are now decided on the day means no chance of a replay and the posisbility of a FIFTH meeting inside a month.

As the two sides clash in the first of that potential quadruple-header this Saturday, there’s no doubting the significance of the Irish Cup clash for both teams in January.

Both teams have suffered forgettable league form and the run of defeats early in David Healy’s reign means that the Cup will be as important to Healy as it will be to Ferguson.

In the meantime, Ballymena’s league campaign continues to trundle on, with a win here followed by a couple of defeats there - it’s the sort of inconsistent form that has another mid-table finish written all over it.

Saturday’s win over Warrenpoint only served to update the weekly illustration of United’s strengths and deficiencies still further.

There are plenty of games before then but even allowing for the draw, Ballymena fans must already be looking forward to that Irish Cup date.