Ballinamallard coach Steve Feeney is backing the young players to rise to the occasion and play without fear when they face Crusaders in the Irish Cup final. The Mallards squad has experienced players such as John Connolly, Ryan Campbell, Jay McCartney and Richard Clarke increasing the average age of the squad to 25, but at the other end of the spectrum are the likes of Sean McEvoy, Darragh McBrien and Michael Glynn, who have all made regular first team appearances before their seventeenth birthdays.

Harry McConkey has fielded nine different teenagers in Championship games this season, and some of those players will be able to add an Irish Cup final to their CV next week. That inexperience could be perceived as a disadvantage against the know-how of a Crusaders squad who have won multiple league titles in recent seasons, but Feeney believes the character of the younger lads will play in their favour. “They don’t seem to get fazed by anything,” he said. “There has always been a nice blend in the squad, but this year so many of the young lads have come in and have played with no fear. I’m sure some of them do get nervous leading up to big games but they have shown week in and week out that they aren’t affected by it. They just want to get on the pitch and show what they can do, and it’s great to see. As coaches it is great to see young lads who want to go on and do their best and from our point of view we can see they want to learn and they are taking it on board and it’s great to have them around the squad at the moment. When you add that to the experienced lads we have that have played in the higher leagues, the blend has clicked perfectly. You have the mix of experienced lads who have been around the block and know what they are at, mixed with the young lads who are raw and just want to play football and progress and be as good as they can be.”

Feeney, who has been at the club for eight years in a playing and coaching capacity, reckons it is the work going outside of the first team that has helped the senior team achieve their success. “It’s no wonder we have young players coming through when you see the academy and what goes on every Saturday,” he said. “There is so much good going on behind the scenes that maybe doesn’t get the coverage of the first team, but it’s the reason Ballinamallard have such a good young squad. The facilities and the pitch itself and the work going on at the club is amazing. It is a club that has built itself up over the years and if you look at the ground as a whole it is a fantastic facility. The people are the main part of the club and they have put a great infrastructure in place.”

At the head of the pyramid is first team manager Harry McConkey, and it is attention to detail and preparation that Steve reckons has been key to their recent good form. “Even the lads who have been at bigger clubs will tell you that his preparation is second to none,” he revealed. “The lads get all the information about the opposition and how they might play and how we are going to play against them, and we work on that during the week. He is so well prepared no matter who we are playing.”

Even when results were not going in their favour in the first half of the season McConkey stuck to his principals, and Steve believes that was key to getting their campaign back on track. “To be fair to him, he just kept doing what he had been doing and didn’t change anything massively,” he said. “He just kept doing what he believed in and you could see things happening in the background and we felt confident things would turn. When we got a few results back to back and the players started to believe in themselves and believe in what Harry was saying to them, the confidence started to flow through them and they kicked on. That explained a lot about the run we went on for the next ten or twelve games where we won the majority of them.”

Steve has been particularly impressed with Harry’s man management skills since he returned to the club one year ago. “He makes everyone feel very valued and he knows how important each person is. He is brilliant at making people feel wanted and feel like they are part of something. He wants your opinion and will take that on board, but he is his own man and has no problem making decisions if he has to. Myself, Craig, the strength and fitness coach Brian, Aaron, Niall and everyone in the backroom team, he makes us all feel part of it. I have been in football for a long time and want to stay in it and maybe move on to management one day, so it’s been a great experience working for someone like Harry.”

Steve’s long association with the club has seen him become a favourite among the supporters, and he is well aware of what the cup run means to the fans. “Since the semi-final all people are talking about is the final and what their plans are and how much they are looking forward to it,” he stated. “The excitement it has brought to the club has been brilliant and there is a great feeling about the club at the moment. Over my eight years there have been some great ups and some really bad downs but at the moment everything is good and it looks good on the pitch. It’s great that the lads have been able to get to the cup final and give the supporters that, but as we keep saying to the players, everyone is going to enjoy it more if we can get the result on the day. We are going up there to win and if we can do that it would be huge.”