Jason McCartney has welcomed the opportunity to return to competitive football, with Ballinamallard United confirming they are set to take their place in the Irish Cup.

The club had consistently been denied elite status by the Irish Football Association – a decision that ultimately ended the Championship league season.

The recent announcement that clubs in the cup would be granted elite status only for the duration of their time in the competition received a mixed reception from the Championship clubs, with some declaring they would not take part, and McCartney admits it was something they also considered before making the decision to enter.

“That thought did come into my head but, at the same time, I felt that we needed it as players,” he said.

“We have been fighting for elite status all season, and all of a sudden, when it suits certain people, they are willing to give us elite status, but it’s not about them – it’s about us, now.

“I feel like going back is going to be very good for the mental side of things for people and it is a lot more important than just the football side of it.

“Just to be in a group of people playing football; doing something you love, laughing, joking, playing football ... It’s important for players to be able to go back out there and release a little bit and do what they love doing. I’m delighted we can back out and play.

“I do think it was unfair the way we were treated when we didn’t get elite status, but we have to take the positives out of anything we can get now, and the positives are that we can go back out and play a game of football.”

Ballinamallard’s first cup game will be against fellow Championship side Dergview, but Jason knows that if they come face to face with a Premier League side who have been playing since last year, they will face an uphill challenge.

“It’s going to be tough, because we don’t want to let ourselves down. You want to be able to stand toe-to-toe against the players you are up against,” he said.

“You want to be competitive. You don’t just want to be there just to take part. You want to compete as much as you can.

“We all know the situation we are in and it’s going to be hard if we come up against any teams that have been playing nearly a full season, but we will go out and give it whatever we can, and you never know.

“Maybe that adrenaline rush that we might get because we haven’t been at it for a long time, might push us on. You never know.”

The decision to grant elite status to the club will open the door for training to resume next week, and will also permit the players residing in the Republic of Ireland to cross the Border for matches and training, despite their current local restrictions restricting them to a 5 kilometre travel limit.

That has come as a huge relief for Jason and his colleagues, Steve Feeney, Chris Kelly and Ross Taheny, who have been unable to make the trip to Ferney Park for almost five months.

‘Doing our own sessions’

“I honestly can’t remember the last time I was at Ballinamallard,” admitted Jason. “Before this current lockdown came in, we weren’t allowed to travel up North, so even though the boys were training we weren’t able to travel, and the four of us were meeting up on an Astroturf pitch here and doing our own sessions.

“It’s a long time and all we have been doing is running. When you have been playing football for so long, it’s not enough. You want to get a touch of the football and play.

“You are used to being in a group at training and you are not used to having to do it all yourself all the time. A lot of footballers get the best out of each other because they push off each other.”

Jason admits that his forced absence from the game has been tough for him at times.

“To be honest, back in November or December, I wasn’t in a great frame of mind. I was in a wee slump and it took me a wee while to get out of it. I am 34 and love the game, but I was getting thoughts that I might not be able to turn out again at that level. That was not the way I wanted to finish playing.

“I could have been made to retire, rather than saying goodbye to what I love at the end of a proper season.

“I was getting those silly thoughts in my head, and when there is no way to get a release it is hard.”

It looks as though the long-serving winger will get his wish to return to action on Ferney Park, but he admits he has not made a decision yet about his future at the close of the cup campaign.

‘Month by month’

“I am going to take it month by month,” he revealed.

“It is going to be good to get back and see how my body is feeling. If I feel like I am able to contribute to the club, then it is going to be hard for me to ever stop.

“At the same time, I don’t want to be letting myself down either. If I’m not able to do a job and not able to help people out, then it would not be fair on anyone, but the next couple of months will be a good test to see where I am.

“If I am able, then I won’t be able to say no to it,” he added.