Steve Feeney was one of the scorers on the memorable day Ballinamallard were promoted in 2012. He is now a coach under Harry McConkey. He talks to Gareth Cauldwell.

Eight years ago this weekend Steve Feeney was among the goals as Ballinamallard United became the first Fermanagh side to secure promotion to the top flight of football in the country.

And now Sligo man Feeney is hoping to play his part in helping the Mallards return to the Premiership as Harry McConkey’s first team coach.

Feeney has fond memories of the day that the Ducks sealed the Championship title and promotion as they defeated Bangor while Newry suffered defeat to leave Whitey Anderson’s side out of reach at the top of the table.

“It was brilliant. We had to beat Bangor and hope that Newry were beaten and we went 3-0 up but then they came back to make it 3-2. However, they also had a man sent off and I think we were comfortable over the last 10 or 15 minutes without finishing them off.

“We were then coming off the pitch when someone shouted on to Whitey that Newry had lost and the celebrations started. It was a great feeling; all the hard work and training that people had put in had paid off, it was unbelievable,” he stated.

Feeney had only joined the club at the start of that season along with Jason McCartney and they played a huge role in the promotion push but he feels that it was the players who had progressed through the youth ranks who had been key to the success.

“It was huge for the club. It was only our first season at the club but there were lads there who had come up through youth teams. Whitey and a few others had set up the academy structure and the things they had put in place a few years beforehand were important in getting the club through to the Premiership.

“They had good youth teams who had won the Harry Cavan Youth Cup and for them then to step up into the first team and play important roles in the promotion, I think that delighted people at the club,” he stated.

Feeney was in no doubt either about the quality of squad that Anderson had put together that season.

“Looking back, it was a small enough squad in terms of numbers but we were very lucky that the squad was full of quality.

“We had Mark McConkey at right back who was excellent. You had two centre backs in Leon and Staff that were colossal and even if one of them was missing or injured you had Gareth Liggett to come in.

“On the wings you had Jay on one side and Chrissie Curran on the other, they were two good wingers to have in the Premiership nevermind the Championship and in midfield you had Keesy, Hutchy, James McKenna all competing for places and Andy up front.”

The bulk of the squad remained for the first season in the Premiership when Ballinamallard surprised everybody by securing a top five finish.

“The first season went so well,” recalls Feeney.

“The first thing for any team going up is to try and stay in that division and you were hopeful that you could go up and compete.

“We got off to a good start and built on the confidence gained from the season before when we won the Championship.

“You have to look at the players we had. There was real talent, Staff and Chrissie have not only gone on to win league titles with other clubs but were key men in those teams so looking back it is obvious that we had a good side and that’s the reason we did well in the Championship and then that first season after we were promoted.”

The stay in the Premiership though came to an end in 2018 when the Mallards were relegated.

Feeney was a coach under then manager Gavin Dykes who stepped down late in the campaign and despite a brave rally under now manager Harry McConkey the Ducks went down on the final day of the season.

“It was a disappointing few months. Decisions we were making in regards the team weren’t working out, players weren’t playing as well as you hoped and little by little everything felt that it wasn’t going to turn and that’s when I think Gavin got to the stage where he decided to let someone else have a go and Harry then came in.

“The lads did well when Harry came in but it was too little too late. I do think that at the time the squad we had was good enough to stay in the league but it just didn’t work out for us,” he explained.

And Feeney feels an unsettled back four was one of the reasons for the drop.

“If you look at that first season in the Premiership the back four hardly changed. You had Mark McConkey, Danny Keohane, Mark Stafford and Leon Carters. It was very consistent but from the second season in the Premiership the back four started to chop and change a lot whether it was injuries or whatever. You couldn’t get that consistency at the back which for me is where you build.”

Feeney had left along with Dykes but was persuaded to return to the role by McConkey for the start of the next season and he says he has learnt a lot from the manager.

“When I left with Gavin, Harry was on to me pretty quickly and from that phone call he had planted the seed with me and then I spoke to him a couple of times that summer.

“Once you sit with Harry once you could not be anything but encouraged to get involved with him. I have learned so much from him, not only football but how to deal with people. Harry is one of the nicest men in football but he still can make decisions when they need to be made because he wants the best for the team and the club so he is not afraid to upset lads at the same time,” he said.

And the coach is hoping that the Ducks can make a return to the Premiership at some stage in the future.

“We have a lot of good young lads mixed with more experienced fellas. We have a nice balance and Harry has done a great job in getting players in that complement the squad and in the background as well.

“There is a nice feeling in the club and the team and everyone is pushing in the one direction to try and see if we can challenge in the league and sneak promotion, if not as winners then maybe as second and hopefully go up through the play offs.

“Obviously, with the disruption at the moment, it will be a while now before we know what is going to happen.”

The season is currently at a stop due to the Coronavirus crisis and Feeney acknowledges that people’s health must come first.

It is a decision that had to be made, people are more important than football and all we can do is wait and see what happens and hopefully we will get back playing and get the league up and running again.

“We know we have games left and we have to be competitive in every game and try and get points and see where it leaves us at the end of the season.”