Ballinamallard have been handed a tough start to their NIFL Championship season, with expected title challengers Loughgall and Institute the first two sides to face the Mallards, if the season does finally get started as planned.

NIFL have announced that the league is scheduled to get underway on Saturday November 28 when Loughgall visit Ferney Park, but manager Harry McConkey is keeping his fingers crossed that there are no further delays.

“I really do feel my players deserve to start for what they have done,” said the boss.

“It is a provisional date so you are always speaking with great caution, but you have to give the players something to look forward to, and something to aim for, so seeing the fixtures was great.

“I will just be so grateful to be playing again and get my players onto the park and introduce some new players.

“Also, we have been so impressed with the progress the youngsters have been making, so it would be great to get back playing.”

The first match sees the visit of Loughgall, who have become something of a bogey side for the Mallards since they dropped into the Championship.

The County Armagh side have won on each of their four visits to Fermanagh over the past two seasons, with the Mallards sole success in six matches coming when they won away from home last November.

“Loughgall have a great record at our home,” acknowledged McConkey.

“We have done better up there, and they have a better record down here, and our first challenge is to change that around.

“All good things must come to an end and they can’t be coming to our park and turning us over like they have done the last couple of times, and at very important points of our season.

“They were key moments for us when we were trying to get momentum, and we know they are going to be a formidable opponent in the very first game.”

After the challenge of Loughgall, Ballinamallard will make the trip to Institute who have come down from the top flight.

The game will be a trip back to their former club for three of Ballinamallard’s summer signings, but Dean Curry, Ryan Morrow and Niall Grace will be hoping to bring the points back to their new club, ahead of a third fixture against Harland and Wolff Welders.

“Welders are not in their new ground yet and Tillysburn, that pitch is always a challenge for teams,” said Harry.

“We had a good day the last time though and we showed we can out-battle them, which is what you have to do when you go there.

“Gary Smith is back in there as manager from Glentoran and Scott McMillan is back, the Junior International captain, and they have regrouped again.

“I have watched them against Crusaders in the County Antrim Shield and they put up a good fight.”

Then it is the visit of Newry, another side who could be in contention for promotion, before a Boxing Day derby trip to Dergview.

Despite the tough start, a shortened season means a slow start in a similar vein to recent seasons could be fatal for the chances of a successful campaign.

“It is a real, real challenge for us, all those games,” admitted the manager.

“When I took the job in 2018 we had a horrible start and lost nine of the first 11 games.

“You would have thought in the second season we would have learned our lesson but again we set off on our first two games and lost them. As much as it meant to the players, and as much as they tried, it didn’t happen.

“This time we know that it is even more exaggerated that we have to come out of the blocks, but as a manager I can’t be putting so much pressure on the players that they don’t perform.

“The bottom line is that they know it is very important not to make the same slip-up that we did previously. It would be even more damaging if you let three or four results go by, so we have to be at our very best from the outset.”

While the squad wait for kick-off, they have been trying to make the best of the current restrictions, which allow them to train in groups of 15 but without a football.

The fitness sessions have allowed the team to work on their fitness, but the manager admits it is not how he would have liked to warm up for a crucial start to the season.

“It is far from ideal,” he acknowledged. “We are limited to a maximum of 15 to a session, so we have had to rotate people. The Derry lads have had to train up in Derry, and the Sligo lads have to train individually because they are not allowed to train together.

“The remaining players have had to juggle demands in the workplace, and with the limited numbers I have had to ask players to come to two out of three sessions when they can.

“Without the ball we have tried to be as creative as we can, but it is so, so frustrating when you have to go backwards having had such a good build up with friendly matches and all the game situations we have had.

“Now there is going to be a four week break and that is very difficult to manage when you are trying to prepare for a league campaign.

“It isn’t the ideal preparation, but in the circumstances you have to try to do your very best and that is all I can ask of the players,” stated McConkey.