Irish Premiership: Move over Ronaldo, bring on the Braidmen

Crues midfielder Declan Caddell and Ballymena's Tony Kane contest a high ball
Crues midfielder Declan Caddell and Ballymena's Tony Kane contest a high ball

A game enters semi-exciting territory and I'm counting down the seconds until a familiar refrain comes through on the Radio Ulster airwaves.

"This is a great advert for Irish League football."

We've all heard it, but not always believed it. It sits high in the list of Northern Ireland sporting cliches.

An attempt to promote a product which has been squeezed by a multitude of alternative attractions. Hoping to transform listeners into customers.

I was a customer on Saturday, driving up the A26 from Antrim to watch Ballymena United take on Crusaders at the Showgrounds.

The attraction? I wanted to see if the Crues could clinch up a third straight title, with a win over the Braidmen and defeat for challengers Linfield at Coleraine keeping the Gibson Cup at Seaview.

The title race has been bubbling along nicely in recent months and it had now reached boiling point with two games left - a thrilling climax in the battle of the Crues and Blues.

Linfield midfielder Aaron Burns heads over the Bannisders crossbar
Linfield midfielder Aaron Burns heads over the Bannisders crossbar

I asked my 13-year-old son, a Liverpool and Real Madrid fan, if he fancied going to his first Irish League game. No Coutinho or Ronaldo on show, just a bunch of part-timers trying to play football on a terrible Showgrounds surface.

To my surprise he answered in the affirmative, although only if his friend could come along with us.

It was just £15 all-in at the turnstiles, not bad for an adult and two children, and we made our way to the new stand housing the Sky Blues faithful.

Out came the teams and United boss David Jeffrey, resplendent in a suit straight out of Savile Row, turned to raise a rallying fist to the fans.

They roared in response and I sensed before a ball was kicked that Ballymena were up for this, determined to be party-poopers on what promised to be a historic day for the north Belfast visitors.

And so it transpired, although the fine line between success and failure was highlighted as the champions pressed for an early opener.

Andrew Waterworth
Linfield striker Andrew Waterworth scored twice as Linfield fought back to defeat Coleraine

A free-kick found Crues striker Jordan Owens four yards out and with just Ross Glendinning to beat.

A player whose reputation is built on aerial prowess, but on this occasion he headed straight at the United keeper.

A couple of inches either side and it goes in, Crusaders have the momentum and the outcome may have been so different.

Both sides squandered chances on the bobbliest of bobbly pitches, with United hitting the woodwork, but it ended scoreless at the break.

Burger and chips time for the boys, a quick flick through the matchday programme and then on the mobile for an update from Coleraine on our (excuse the plug) live text commentary page.

We sat directly opposite the Crusaders 18-yard box in the second half, providing the perfect viewpoint as Ballymena rattled in three goals to win 3-0.

A glaring vulnerability in the Crues defence, so badly missing the power and presence of injured captain Colin Coates, was brutally exposed as Conor McCloskey's opener was followed by a Cathal Friel double.

Ballymena defender Johnny Flynn consoles a dejected David Cushley at the final whistle
Ballymena defender Johnny Flynn consoles a dejected David Cushley at the final whistle

My little companions politely clapped the first goal, cheered the second and were in full-on celebration mode for the third.

Ballymena gained two new young supporters on Saturday and I'm now being pestered about taking them to Sky Blues games next season.

Linfield thumped the Bannsiders 5-1 and suddenly they are two points clear going into this weekend's finale.

I will be back on live text commentary duty as the Crues host Glenavon while the Blues visit a Cliftonville side buoyed by the return of Tommy Breslin as temporary manager.

I'm looking forward to it, but it's no substitute for being at Seaview or Solitude.

Linfield lead by two points with just one match left in the 2016/17 season

My visit to the Showgrounds was a reminder of what going to a game can be - dramatic, atmospheric, engrossing, exciting and although just a fan, a feeling that you are part of it.

As we dandered away from Warden Street I had an inner chuckle, for even this cynical old hack knew what he had witnessed.

A great advert for Irish League football.

Top Stories