The moment Ryan Campbell’s penalty hit the back of the net is a moment that Ballinamallard manager Harry McConkey will never forget. That spot kick kept the impossible dream alive, sending the minnows of Ballinamallard into the final of the Irish Cup and making them one of the most unlikely finalists in the 138 year history of the competition.

“It is one that will live in the memory of a lot of us,” admitted Harry. “I have had too many bangs and knocks to know that you can never assume anything in football until the result is final, but then you get that lovely warm glow of success and nobody can ever take that away from you.”

Harry is quick to praise the efforts of his players, but every member of the playing squad acknowledges the importance of the work carried out by McConkey and his coaching staff. In the weeks leading up to the fixture the backroom team assembled a mountain of information on their opponents, and the players went onto the pitch with a clear understanding of what they had to do. “After the last couple of weeks they probably know the Warrenpoint players better than they know their own wives,” said Harry. “The players took on stuff from clips of videos, they took on the knowledge of every individual player that was on that park. It was a case of them making sure we would nullify them where we could, and playing to our strengths to expose their weaknesses. I was delighted with the shape we set up in which made it difficult for them to dominate the game.”

The tactics worked to perfection, with Warrenpoint unable to get a foothold in the game as the Mallards had the better of the first half. They did have to withstand some Warrenpoint pressure in the second period, but the clean sheet was vindication of Harry’s tactics. “In the first half we retained the ball and dominated the ball, maybe without hurting them enough,” he said. “If Chris Kelly’s shot goes in the top corner I think everybody in the ground would have agreed we would have deserved that 1-0 lead. In the second half we knew there would be a reaction because they were stunned that we were dominating so much, but they knew they were still in the game. They came out with more purpose and asked a few more questions, but we had the wonderful assurance of John Connolly behind us and a great defensive display.”

Connolly has been a vital member of the squad this season, with the goalkeeper receiving the NIFL Player of the month award for March. Even before the penalty shoot-out, the 42 year old produced a vital save with fifteen minutes remaining, denying Lee Duffy who was through on goal. “I thought John’s starting position all day was excellent and he anticipated and make things look easy that weren’t,” enthused Harry. “When Duffy made that break it was a case of who was going to be the bravest and who was going to keep their composure, and that was John. He has got player of the month and he is truly deserving of that. He has been excellent.”

The Mallards finished strongly in extra time despite the tired legs, but without a winning goal the game went to the lottery of penalties. It was no surprise that Harry was prepared. “We had a bit of fun with penalties on Thursday night and I wouldn’t let any player go off until they had scored, and to be honest they were all in pretty quickly,” he said. “You cannot rehearse fully for a situation like that in an atmosphere like that. But they literally entertained me because of the quality of their strikes and the confidence in the way they put the ball in the lack of the net was fantastic to see. Given the importance, it was a real sign of boys maturing and growing up. Ryan O’Reilly missed in the last shoot out at Dungannon and he was the first to say he wanted another go. That is the attitude we have had to have all season. When we take a step back we don’t run away from it. We actually address it, and say ‘what can we do to make this better.’”

The win was a highpoint in the history of the club, and the manager admitted it was also the highpoint of his football career. “It has for me been the pinnacle of my management career, and

probably my whole footballing career,” he said. “In November for the first time ever I led Northern Ireland out at Windsor and we beat Macedonia 1-0. That night for me was absolutely massive. For 14 years I had waiting to manage my own country at Windsor Park, and to win that one would have run this close, but this is a situation where you are doing something for the people of your own county in the blue riband trophy of Irish Football, and that probably means it tops that. I’m sixty this year and you think you have seen most things and your best days are well behind you, but then this comes at you and now I have to spend a month preparing for an Irish Cup final. It’s a lovely, lovely thing to have to deal with! I will do my best to deal with it in the only way I know how, and that is to work hard over the next month and see what that brings us at Windsor Park.”

While the win over Warrenpoint was a remarkable achievement, even that success would overshadowed by a Cup final victory over league champions Crusaders, but Harry is in no doubt about the challenge that lies ahead. “We have to dream that this could be a wonderful, wonderful day, but I’m the realist and I know the massive size of the task,” admitted the boss. “There is still a lot that can happen in the next month and we still have to manage getting through the next four very tough league games against Larne and teams who are fighting for their lives to reach the IPL. We will have our best shot at it, and all I hope is that we perform again in the manner we did in the last two rounds. I’m so, so proud of the way the players have stepped up to this, and we now need one massive, massive performance. We need an element of luck on the day, and there are so many things that need to go right for us, but we have already proved that things are possible that we never thought months ago would be possible. I am finding that I am having to manage people’s expectations, but I never thought the expectation would be that Ballinamallard could beat Crusaders at Windsor Park for the Irish Cup. I mean, that just sounds like a ridiculous expectation but as Walt Disney said, “sometimes its fun to do the impossible,” and I think that line applies here. Wouldn’t it just be such fun to do what really does seem impossible?”