Summer 2011 was a pivotal moment in the recent history of Ballinamallard. The club were regular members of the top six in the Championship but season after season the Premier League remained tantalisingly out of reach, and the prospect of an Irish Cup final appearance only entered the thoughts of the fantasists.

Then manager Whitey Anderson made a trip to Sligo and returned with two signings that changed everything. By the end of that summer Jason McCartney and Steve Feeney were key members of a squad that would dominate the Championship and turn Ballinamallard’s dreams into reality.

Eight years later and the pair are still making dreams come true. Steve Feeney has moved into the backroom team as Harry McConkey’s right hand man, and the evergreen McCartney is still producing match winning performances on the pitch, scoring in the quarter final against Dungannon and producing a game in the semi-final that defied his 32 years.

McCartney is now a fan favourite at Ferney Park, but prior to that call from former manager Anderson, Ballinamallard was not a club he was familiar with. The arrival of his first child had encouraged him to give up a full time playing contract with Sligo Rovers to take on a more secure form of employment, but Whitey thought he could tempt him back to part time football.

“I actually thought someone had made up a team name and was trying to take the mickey,” said Jason as he recalled the phone conversation.

“I went with it and chatted away, and then he asked me if I knew Steve Feeney. Steve and I grew up together all our lives so I then realised there was something in it.

“Whitey invited Steve and I up to Ballinamallard for the last game of their season against Harland and Wolff Welders. I remember me and Steve walking into the ground and looking at each other and saying; ‘I want to play on that pitch. That pitch is unreal’. That was the first thing that caught our eyes. We watched the game and Ballinamallard won 4-1 and played very well. We met Whitey after the game and after that we wanted to play for the club. It was a great opportunity for us to get back into football at a decent level.”

That Sligo link with Ballinamallard has endured over the years, with the likes of Danny Keohane, Liam Martin and more recently Ross Taheny all making the journey across the border to play for the Mallards. No-one in the Sligo football community thinks Ballinamallard is a made up name now. The influx of signings has generated support on the terraces as well, and Jason is delighted that there will be large following from his home county making the trip to the National Stadium for the final.

“I think there are two or three buses coming up for the cup final,” he said.

“There are a few different areas of the town making arrangements, and Ross (Taheny) lives a little bit outside the town and there is a bus coming from there too, so that could be four buses. There is a big game on that day because Sligo are playing Shamrock Rovers so we thought no-one would come up, but it shows how much people are really getting behind us.

“They are happy to see us in this position and they want to be there to see if we can lift the trophy.”

Running out onto the pitch in the Irish Cup final will be a dream come true for the winger, but when pushed for a highlight of his time at the club it is the off field element that he prefers to talk about.

“Getting to the cup final is massive. It was always one thing I wanted to do in my career, to play in a cup final. I’m delighted to get the chance to do that but the biggest highlight for me at the club is the people I’ve met over the last eight years,” he said.

“They are good genuine people and they will go out of their way for you. Even just the wee chats with them before and after games. It’s great to have people like that at a club, because you don’t get it everywhere. There are a lot of places you can’t go into the clubhouse after games and sit down with a group of supporters and have a normal chat. I think that is a big part of the reason I have been there for eight years now. You feel part of everything which is a massive deal for me.”

In contrast to the current mood around the club, not all of Jason’s time at the club has been positive and uplifting, with the winger recalling several low moments over the past few season.

“Getting relegated was horrible,” he admitted.

“At that stage I was seven years at the club and it hurt me because I had big feelings for the club and I knew how hard everyone had worked to get there. That was a big downer for me, as was losing 11-0 at Portadown. I remember thinking that I wanted that ground to just open up and fall into it. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. It was just one of those days where every time they had a shot it went in.”

Those nightmares are now a distant memory with Cup final fever gripping the club. Jason reckons the enormity of what they have achieved is still difficult to take on board.

“I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet what has actually happened,” he said. “I think that day when we arrive, or in the morning when we are putting on the cup final suits, that is going to be one big wallop in the face and we’re going to realise, ‘This is it, I could be lifting a cup today.’ You never know what could happen. The supporters are ecstatic and it’s all they want to talk about, and I’m glad to talk about it as well to be honest.”

Jason has tasted victory at Windsor Park previously, having defeated Linfield on their home ground in their first season in the top flight when no-one gave them a chance, and he sees no reason why they cannot upset the odds again. “I really do think we can do it,” he said. “Harry always says that their manager will be saying to them that this is a good Ballinamallard team, but deep down they are going to be thinking that they are going to be beating us and we can use that to our advantage. Their expectations are to beat us easily, but we will walk out with no weight on our shoulders and they will have all the pressure on theirs. We can enjoy it and be free to do whatever it takes to win the game.

“When we played Warrenpoint we knew we had a chance, but we didn’t have that pressure of people expecting us to win. That was a lovely feeling, and you could go out and embrace the day and enjoy it without that expectation on you. It’s going to be ten times that feeling again in the final. People will be expecting Crusaders to beat us by two or three maybe, but we don’t expect that. We really believe that if we are at it, and we work hard enough for each other, we can do it.”

It has been evident this season that the players have lacked nothing in preparation for matches, with Harry McConkey and his backroom team studious in doing their homework. Jason believes that has made a big difference, and will once again put them in the best position to snatch an unexpected win.

“Harry, Steve and Craig are unbelievable in the amount of work they put in to set up for games. Sometimes on a Tuesday evening we are sitting there for half an hour going through video clips and you just want to play football, but when you come to Saturday and you see all these bits and pieces that we’ve been told and they are working, you have to love it.

“I know we will be set out right and I honestly believe we have a chance. It’s brilliant that we got his far, but now that we are there you have to think positive and you have to think that you can win it. We are going to have a go at them. We are not going to have any regrets when the final whistle goes.”