Top six or bottom is irrelevant – Sky Blues remain a mid-table club

IF there’s one benefit of the ‘split’ having taken place in the Danske Bank Premiership it’s that we won’t have to hear what has become one of the most nauseating soundbites in local football again until next season.

Ballymena United.
Ballymena United.
Ballymena United.

If I had a pound for every time this season I’ve interviewed players or managers and the line ‘we have to make it into the top six’ was trotted out, I would have a tidy sum in my pocket.

Don’t get me wrong - I would rather Ballymena United were playing out their remaining matches in the upper half of the championship, because that would have illustrated progress from last season.

But that’s exactly what it would be - progress, nothing more.

It really galls me how this idea has crept into Premiership managers’ and players’ thinking that reaching the top six should be deemed as some sort of success.

Perhaps if you’re one of the real minnows and you string together enough points to finish in the top half against all the odds then, yes, that is ‘success’ - Ballinamallard could lay justifiable claim to that, given their exploits as a newly-promoted club.

But when, like Ballymena, you’re one of a clutch of clubs, light years away from the top end of the table but in no danger of relegation, whether you finish fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth is irrelevant to me, in football terms at least - you’re a mid-table club.

No doubt fans of other clubs who read this will accuse me of sour grapes because Ballymena finished on the wrong side of the ‘split’.

Let me put my point into some sort of context; if you ask any Ballymena United fan what the most memorable part of their season was, 100 per cent of them will instantly offer the County Antrim Shield success as an instant reply.

Now THAT is success, something that will live in the memory for years to come, an historic night to reflect upon with the next generation of fans.

I can’t really see the comment ‘do you remember that night we clinched sixth place in the league?’ - IF Ballymena ever manage it after five failed attempts since the current league format began - prompting the same outpouring of emotion.

Let’s be blunt about it; Ballymena’s, along with that other number of mid-table clubs I alluded to earlier, main interest in finishing in the top six is purely financial - the hope that you might land a lucrative home fixture against a side perhaps aiming to clinch the title on that day.

To me, unless you’re actually challenging at the business end of the top six, for titles or European qualification, it makes very little difference which half of the table you finish in, excluding the obvious financial deficit between the two.

A club official told me that failure to reach the top six costs Ballymena an estimated £15,000 each season.

Over five seasons, that’s £75,000 which has potentially gone up the Swanee – how much would that have meant in terms of team strengthening to Ballymena, or indeed any club, over that length of time?

While the league campaign remains the bread and butter of any football team, it doesn’t capture the imagination of existing and prospective new supporters in the same way a shiny trophy does.

If someone had asked at the start of the season that Ballymena United would be guaranteed to either win a trophy or else finish in the top six, I know which one I would have chosen every time.

The difficulty will be that unless United can suddenly become a team capable of winning knockout competitions on a more regular basis than roughly once every quarter-of-a-century, then league positions – and the need for them to improve into top six material – will be brought into sharper focus in the seasons ahead.

* Follow Ballymena Times Sports Editor Stephen Alexander on Twitter (@Stephen_Bmena)