Ballymena and Muckamore set for crunch survival clash

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Ballymena and Muckamore won’t want to admit it, but their battle to decide who stays in the Ulster Bank Premier League effectively gets under way at Moylena on Saturday.

The statistics don’t make for pleasant reading. Muckamore have lost all six of their league matches since returning to the top flight as Section One winners.

Ballymena have found life no easier, with five consecutive league reversals and an exit from the first round of every cup competition they entered.

Ballymena at least are showing signs of recovery. They competed before losing to Civil Service North and Instonians and crucially David Kennedy, the veteran batsman, returns from injury, and Robert McKinley is back from university.

After some fleeting early promise, Muckamore have been undone by wretched batting, their troubles encapsulated by last week’s collapses when they were dismissed for 96 and 56 by Lisburn and CIYMS respectively.

The two matches between the clubs may decide their fate, although Ballymena’s Simon McDowell plays down that suggestion.

“Neither of us have any wins and it would be great for us to get up and running on Saturday,” he said. “It’s too early in the season to say that whoever loses these games goes down, or whoever wins stays up. Last year we lost to Lurgan twice and managed to stay up. Now that we are at full strength we are confident we can get two or three other wins in the second half of the season. Having said that, you can’t deny that whoever wins on Saturday will be at a massive advantage.”

Batting is where Ballymena appear to have the advantage. Professional Yogesh Takawale has yet to catch fire since his late arrival from the Indian Premier League but a big score is surely just around the corner. Steve Lazars has made 84 not out and 52 in his last two innings while the Kennedy brothers are seasoned campaigners.

McDowell said: “You talk to anyone at Muckamore and the one team they want to beat is Ballymena and it’s the same for us. It doesn’t matter what situation you are in, even if you are safe, the games between the clubs are always going to be big. It’s a derby and you never want to come away from a derby losing. The fact that we are both fighting relegation gives it even more spice.”

Irrespective of whoever wins tomorrow, and indeed whoever survives to fight another day in the Premier League, McDowell acknowledges the worrying gulf in class between the top teams in the division and those at the bottom and indeed in Section One.

“The only way you are going to come into the Premier League and really compete is to spend a lot of money on players,” he added. “You can see the gap between the Premier League and Section One with what’s happened to Muckamore.”

With the two Challenge Cup semi-finals taking place tomorrow there is one other Premier League match.

North Down, fresh from reaching the Irish Cup semi-finals and from beating Waringstown in the Twenty20 Cup last four on Tuesday, host a Lisburn team who won both their matches last weekend.