Ballymena boss Glenn Ferguson now turns focus to crunch Irish Cup semi-final

Ballymena's Ryan Harpur closes in on Dungannon's Leroy Millar
Ballymena's Ryan Harpur closes in on Dungannon's Leroy Millar

Ballymena United boss Glenn Ferguson will begin his Irish Cup semi-final preparations in earnest this week after taking a safety first approach to Saturday’s Danske Bank Premiership ‘dead rubber’ against Dungannon.

Ferguson gave a massive hint of his line-up for the Oval clash with Queen’s University by changing all 11 of the starting team from the previous weekend’s win over Glenavon.

His line-up of teenage rookies and first team fringe players gave a decent account of themselves but were undone by a more settled Swifts side, who recorded their first win in five outings against Ballymena this term.

Dungannon had raced into a two-goal lead through former United striker Gary Liggett and Ryan Harpur, before United scored a stoppage time consolation goal in bizarre fashion when Neal Gawley’s wind-assisted corner kick drifted straight in at the far post.

“It was a chance for us to have a look at players on the fringes of the squad and see what their fitness levels are like and to get that up in case they are required but to be honest, it was the younger players who really stood out,” said Ferguson.

“Ten of that team have played first team football in fits and starts – the only one who hadn’t played at this level before was Caolan Loughran.

“Over the course of the 90 minutes I don’t think I’ve seen such a lack of quality in two teams at this level and it probably epitomises the split - something needs to be done to keep games going until the end of the season.

“We could have played a stronger team but why should I risk any players before such an important game next week?

“It was my choice to make the changes so I can’t be too critical and I’ll take the positives about how the young lads played,” added Ferguson, who got the backing of his opposite number Darren Murphy in relation to his team selection.

“I would have done absolutely everything that Glenn Ferguson did - me and him have probably come through the same school of football,” said Murphy.

“I understand how big the prize is – I’ve been in that scenario as a player. He had 11 boys out there who are probably fighting for a place on the bench – he probably already has his starting XI picked for the semi-final.

With a considerable degree of under-statement, Murphy described the match as “definitely not one for the footballing purists”.

“Games between ourselves and Ballymena this year have had excitement, good football and good goals – that one there was the black sheep of the family.

“It was a strange day, a strange game and it finished with a strange goal and that just about sums that match up. It’s a massive three points for us because it keeps us six points ahead of Ballinamallard, five clear of Coleraine and nine ahead of Warrenpoint.”