Attention all fans of the Danske Bank Irish Premier League have the perfect Christmas present you can put top of your wish list to Santa - a sat nav.
The vast majority of our Premier League supporters are going to need one when the time comes for their respective teams visit to Ballinamallard Utd Football Club.
No it won’t be a waste of money because I feel the long and arduous journey deep into County Fermanagh is one which Premier League Clubs and fans will be making for more than this season only.
Last Saturday gave me the perfect opportunity to see at ‘first hand’ the tremendous progress and strides forward the ‘Mallards’ have made over the last couple of years in particular and boy did I get my eyes opened.
I was there on duty for BBC Radio Ulster and I must admit I was delighted when the producer rang to tell me I was covering the game in County Fermanagh between Ballinamallard United and Ballymena United.
Yes I knew the journey to Ferney Park would take the best part of two and a half hours each way but I was desperately keen to see for myself just how the first ever team from Fermanagh were coping with life in the big time.
I left Ballymoney around 10.30am on Saturday morning, collected my fellow co-commentator Grant Cameron in Coleraine and in spite of several different routes and options suggested by several people I chose the one given to me by an old friend and current Ballinamallard striker Andy Crawford.
We arrived at the ground in really good time for approximately one o’clock and were greeted with a sizeable number of stewards and foot soldiers who waved us into what is a large car park for players and officials, large, clean and tidy with no potholes or puddles, a promising start. Then, as I sat in the car polishing off the largest ice cream cone I had ever purchased in the village en-route another ‘Mallard’ official arrived to welcome us and escort us to the radio commentary point. This lad stayed with us until we were sorted and then invited us to the club committee room where tea and refreshments were prepared, all of this and its still only 1.30pm with the match scheduled for a 3pm kick off. Despite my love for a cuppa I simply could not avail of the hospitality just yet until I ventured down onto the pitch which looked simply amazing. The transformation of Ferney Park since my last visit there was quite honestly breath taking the playing surface just has to be the best in this country, I have never seen better and wait for it, its ‘real’ grass. I was genuinely apprehensive about stepping on it with my winkle pickers, it felt as though I should be wearing carpet slippers. It is virtually impossible not to ‘buy into’ the wave of sheer enthusiasm shared by everyone around the club. After yet further welcomes by the Chairman Desi Quinn and the Manager Whitey Anderson I finally surrendered to the temptation of that large pot of tea still waiting for me in the committee room and made my way indoors. Again the very warmth of the people inside ticked every box imaginable in football and proved yet again form me that yes, smaller country clubs can realise their dream and provided they go about it in the proper manner they can reach the very top level in local football - and stay there. The dressing rooms, corridors and general areas are modern and spotless, very reminiscent of what my late mother used to say, “you don’t need luxury or grandeur provided what you do have you keep clean and tidy”.
After I’d finished my tea and Grant Cameron and Jackie Fullerton had ‘seen to’ a plate off swiss roll, I made my way to another large table and chairs where we were provided with typed team sheets for both teams plus a typed and stapled collection of pages which contained all the stats, facts and playing details of every member of the first team squad, such a welcome surprise.
This enabled us to complete our match preparation stats well in advance of kick off plus indoors in a warm and purpose build facility.
In conversation with club officials they explained to me that having built the club and its infrastructure up over several years of hard toil they reached a point where a decision had to be made, “can we provide senior soccer in Fermanagh and more importantly if so can we sustain it?”
As first team manager Whitey Anderson was producing the goods on the field of play the time had come for the committee to match his ambitions ‘off’ the pitch and boy have they done their club proud.
First and foremost - and I totally agree - the club decided the first necessity was a complete new playing surface and so they completely removed the old pitch to a depth of four feet, inserted all the necessary drainage and constructed a sand based ‘pronte’ pitch which is the best you’ll find in the Province.
Then the rest of the jigsaw was assembled around this somewhat large snooker table in a modest fashion to suit the clubs modest needs.
Chairman Desi Quinn when I quizzed him told me the club had a home fan base of up to 500 supporters and together with what looks like an army of volunteers Premiership football, for the first ever time in Fermanagh can be sustained.
A very measured, responsible and calculated response by someone who has obviously presided over some very difficult decisions. Incidentally, I feel this is what cost Carrick Rangers so dearly last season when they got relegated after only one season in the Premiership, no home ground and having to ground share with Crusaders, they quite simply had lost their identity.
Can I suggest, as I stated a couple of weeks back, any club currently outside of our Premiership but with genuine ambition and aspirations to play at the very top level, go along and have a chat with the people who run Ballinamallard FC.
For me that club is the perfect role model for all of the so called smaller clubs.
Many things change in life and in football, even grass surfaces can soon become out of fashion but some things should never change nor become old-fashioned, I refer to common sense, manners and humility.
That’s why I just get the feeling that Ballinamallard Utd are here for more than just this season, they for me have found the perfect recipe.
Just what our league needed, must go now, where did I put that sat nav.