Saturday’s defeat was a blow to Ballinamallard in their quest to gain promotion back to the Premier League, with Harry McConkey and his players left frustrated at their failure to win their first game since securing a top six finish.

“That has been one of my hardest results to take of late,” admitted the manager. “It’s a game that we could and should have won, and that would have put us in a great position just six points off third. We wanted to stay in touch and even the draw might have done that. We will just have to give our best over the next nine weeks. It was a quiet changing room and a long road home for us because we knew we missed an opportunity.”

The manager’s frustrations were amplified by the fact that he was convinced the performance deserved more. “We had a lot of the play and had more control than they did and our attitude was superb,” he said. “Their keeper pulled off a wonder save from Robbie Hume, and I thought if we could have got that early goal it could have made a great difference in that game. They scored against the run of play. For their goal we could have defended better in the wide areas and we have been so good at defending in the centre lately, but they almost got a free header and that simply isn’t good enough. Our response was great and we worked a great goal. We came in at half time thinking we could push on. It was disappointing because I thought whoever scored at 1-1 was going to go on and win it. The players gave absolutely everything and they were unfortunate on the day. It is back to what you do in key areas, and if you don’t kill the game off then you leave yourself vulnerable at the other end. We weren’t clinical enough up top, and we weren’t clinical enough at the back to make sure we didn’t give them a chance.”

Next up for the Mallards is the Irish Cup tie against Carrick Rangers, who currently hold that third play-off spot in the Championship that Ballinamallard are chasing. Although the club’s primary focus remains their league aspirations, victory in Saturday’s Ferney Park clash would be a season highlight. “Irish cup days are always special and we know as a club what it would mean to advance further,” said Harry. “There is always a great romance in the cup and it’s nice to get away from the pressure of the league. On Saturday I would love to be coming off that pitch and seeing more smiling faces. I think for myself and the players it has been great to see more smiling faces around Ferney because it has been tough at times over the last couple of seasons. Any smile we get is a big plus and it would be a lovely feeling coming off the pitch on Saturday knowing we had done our best and knowing we had done enough.”

Carrick and Ballinamallard have played out some dramatic matches in recent years and the Mallards got the better of Rangers in their last encounter, but Harry is expecting another tough challenge. “Carrick have brought in new faces and their January league form was quite good until they lost to Larne last week,” he said. “They have brought in some very good players and they will relish the surface at Ferney. They are a team that have a very strong spine and pace in wide areas and they have made a remarkable surge since the last time we beat them. It will be a really good cup match because if both teams play to their potential there is not much between them. We will want to make sure that Carrick know they have been in a tough game.”

Ballinamallard have injuries worries in defence with Matty Smyth forced off in the last game with a hip flexor problem and Ben McCann still recovering from a knee injury sustained in training last week, and both will face a race against time to be fit for Saturday. Darragh McBrien comeback has been stalled with a calf problem, but the manager is hopeful Michael Glynn will have recovered from illness. Another player who will be available in the coming weeks is new signing Stefan McCusker.

The goalkeeper, who played for the Mallards in the Premier League, has returned to the squad as back up for John Connolly. “He has come in until the end of the season and will be available if needed,” said Harry. “We have John (Connolly) and Josh Brownlee and Tim Harney all in there as cover but Stefan is one we know has been out so he is going to need time to rehabilitate. He has already looked good in training and hopefully he can go on and have a good preseason and then challenge.”