As Ballinamallard begin their Irish Cup campaign on Saturday, Nigel Frazer chats to Harry McConkey about last year’s wonderful cup run

2019 will forever be remembered at Ballinamallard Football Club as the year they lived their Irish Cup dream.

At the start of the season the prospect of the Mallards starring in Northern Ireland’s footballing showpiece at the National Stadium was far beyond the expectations of even the most optimistic of supporters, but on May 4 those dreams were to turn to reality for manager Harry McConkey, the players and the supporters.

“For Ballinamallard Football Club to be in an Irish Cup final was the stuff of dreams,” admitted manager McConkey.

“It was special to see what it meant to people, both around the club and in the wider community. This was stuff that you were dreaming of and wondered if it would ever happen, and suddenly you are there driving through the village and it’s Irish Cup final day and people are flocking around the coach.

“People travelled from all over to be there, and if they weren’t there in person they were very much tuned into it. Players dressed in suits and heading off to the big smoke. We were bringing a bunch of young men on the road to do their county proud and that was to me the most rewarding of all. It was lovely to be part of that.”

On the pitch, a sixth minute goal from Crusaders gave the Belfast side an early advantage and they eased to a 3-0 victory.

“We didn’t play as well as we would have liked, and the result didn’t go for us,” acknowledged McConkey. “We knew what to expect from Crusaders FC and particularly from Jordan Owens. We set the very scenario he scored from on the Thursday night in training, yet couldn’t combat it on the day.

“Even at three nil we never lay down and we kept going. It was a very strong learning experience and good for the character of the players. Crusaders did what they had to do and I simply shook Stephen Baxter’s hand and wished them all the best in their European campaign. Wolves three months later struggled to beat them!”

Ballinamallard’s Irish Cup adventure started with a home tie against PSNI at Ferney Park, and the future could have played out very differently had PSNI not had a player sent off in the first half after they had taken the lead.

With a numerical advantage Ballinamallard pegged them back after an hour, with goals from Nathan Cashel, Ryan O’Reilly, Richard Clarke, Robbie Hume an own goal giving them a 5-1 win.

That earned them a home tie against Carrick Rangers where an 18th minute winner from Josh McIlwaine took them through to a quarter final against local rivals Dungannon.

Swifts went ahead in the first half but a Jason McCartney equalizer seven minutes into the second half took the game to extra time. With eight minutes left the Mallards cup run hung in the balance as Teggart scored for the Swifts, but again Ballinamallard responded with Ryan Campbell levelling with three minutes remaining to take the game to a penalty shoot-out.

Richard Clarke, Christopher Kelly and Joshua McIlwaine were all successful with their spot kicks as the Mallard’s march to the final continued.

Warrenpoint were their semi-final opponents, and with the match at Glenavon’s ground scoreless after extra time, it was again the Mallard’s ice cool nerves that helped them to victory in the shootout.

Ryan Campbell rolled in the winning penalty to spark great scenes of celebration among the fans.

“Our final penalty in the semi-final was undoubtedly my happiest moment of the whole campaign because I knew the dream was now reality, and in the background the emotions of our supporters was truly palpable,” said McConkey.

“To share that joy on that day with so many good folk from Fermanagh genuinely brought a tear to my eye. I think that’s the moment that we knew we had made history. You’ve actually reached the Irish Cup final. We had battled so hard and our supporters had sang so loud, and when Rocket sticks away that final penalty at Mourneview it was really surreal.

“The pictures are now are hanging in the corridors of our club and when you see those smiles on the faces of those youngsters like Simon Warrington, who are the future of the club, and the likes of John Connolly, who are in the latter stages of their careers, when you see them sharing such joy and ecstasy it’s a wonderful moment.”

The semi-final win sparked unprecedented levels of media coverage for the club as the build up to the final intensified.

It was a new experience for the manager and the players, and reflecting on it Harry admits it did have an impact on their preparations.

“We would maybe do it a little differently if we were to do it again,” he acknowledged.

“The first time round, no matter how much you think about it, you do get caught up in the razzmatazz of it. I personally found it very draining. There was a constant demand on your time. You were trying to do everything right for the club and trying to arrange our training around TV schedules and other commitments.

“It was quite hectic and quite manic at times and I have to say that that is the part that I didn’t really enjoy. I would have loved to have time to focus fully on the players and the preparation in a way that wasn’t so demanding.”

On the day of the final thousands of fans made their way to the National Stadium in the hope Ballinamallard could upset the odds, and although the result did not go their way, the occasion was a memorable one for the boss.

“Seeing my grandson Harry waiting for me in the National Stadium tunnel and taking his hand as a team mascot and walking out on to the hallowed turf was probably my most precious moment in football,” said Harry, who hopes his players have learnt life lessons from their cup experiences.

“It’s amazing how the self-belief can grow and you start to believe that anything really is possible. I’ve talked about that before to players with my international team when playing the likes of Spain and France, but I have to say that this one was probably the most satisfying of all.

“The lovely thing was that it has given my players and the supporters a sense of hope, and that is very important in life not just in football.”

Harry hopes that the club’s achievements have helped spread a positive feeling not just among the club’s supporters but also throughout the entire county.

“There has been an incredible feel good factor relating to sport in our county this year,” he said. “Local folk have excelled in GAA, rugby, rowing, rallying, golf, swimming, tennis, boxing, athletics, wrestlers, Ju Jitsu, Boccia, wheelchair basketball, Special Olympics and others. Ballinamallard through soccer were just so proud to be a small part of that and in such good company. If our Irish Cup exploits in some small way brought our community a real sense of joy and togetherness then it really holds more value for me than any silverware.”

Having had a taste of the big occasion Ballinamallard supporters will be hoping for a repeat in this season’s Irish Cup.

The first round draw has pitched them against Dollingstown in the opening round, but this season there is also a realistic prospect of promotion back to the Premier League, and Harry is conscious he will have to juggle the two competitions.

“Although the result didn’t go for us we know now we want more of that but there are so many variables that you are not in control of.

“The league is so important to us and if you were to give me a choice of the Irish Cup or the Premier League I would probably choose the Premier League because I think it’s more important to the club in the longer term, but the romance is always there with the cup.”