Football has thrown up many unlikely results over the years.
The history of cup football is dotted with incredible tales of ‘giant-killing’ when smaller clubs have upset overwhelming odds to overcome opposition from higher tiers of the game.
It is that sort of remarkable result fans of Ballinamallard United are hoping for today when the Bluefin Sport Championship side take on the Premier League might of Crusaders in the Tennent’s Irish Cup final.
As they make the 80-mile trip from Co Fermanagh to the National Stadium at Windsor Park, Ballinamallard officials and supporters know their side are “massive underdogs”. But they also know that anything can happen in a one-off final.
Confidence is high in the village that ‘the Mallards’ are capable of causing an upset. But whatever happens they know just getting to the final for the first time is an incredible achievement, and they are determined to enjoy their big day, win or lose.
“It is massive, and something we never expected,” said club chairman Tom Elliott.
“You always live in hope. Every year you are thinking ‘could we get a run in the cup this year’ and it doesn’t happen. Now it has happened we have to pinch ourselves to make sure it’s true.
“Everybody is talking about it. It is on everybody’s lips. The village is decorated. There is bunting up, banners up. Some of the businesses have decorated their forecourts and their shops. I’m not sure there is anybody in the village who doesn’t have knowledge of what’s happening and the enormity of it.”
The former Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP, who played centre half for the club in the 1980s, continued: “We are the underdogs, there is no doubt about it. Crusaders are the hot favourites, but it is one game, 11 against 11. We all know they are big favourites, but it wouldn’t be the first time underdogs have won. On the day our guys will be a good match for them.”
North Belfast side Crusaders – seven-time Irish League champions and three-time Irish Cup winners – will be formidable opposition. But fans of Ballinamallard know it is not impossible for a club from outside the top flight to win the Irish Cup. On three previous occasions so-called ‘junior clubs’ have beaten senior opposition to lift the trophy – Willowfield in 1928, Dundela in 1955 and most recently Carrick Rangers in 1976.
Although that was more than four decades ago, club secretary Richard McBride is hoping manager Harry McConkey and his players can conjure up an equally unlikely victory and secure themselves a place in European competition next season.
“We go into the game massive, massive underdogs, but if we can repeat what Carrick Rangers did in 1976 that would be just absolutely fantastic,” he said.
“There is a great atmosphere about the place. The whole village is behind us, as is the county and further afield.
“If someone had said to me a number of years ago Ballinamallard would be in an Irish Cup final I just wouldn’t have believed it.”
After the original football club went out of existence, the current club was reformed in 1975, initially playing in the Fermanagh & Western League before moving on to compete in the old B Division of the Irish League and later securing promotion to the Premier League in 2012.
A year on from experiencing the lows of relegation after six seasons in the Premiership, the Ferney Park club is preparing for what officials and fans say is the biggest one-off occasion in its history.
Nigel Keys, a club steward and youth coach, has been involved with the club for 40 years.
“It is without doubt the biggest day in the club’s history,” he said.
“I’ve never known a feeling like this before about the club and the village. People are just buzzing. It is going to be a really proud moment on Saturday when (Harry) McConkey leads the boys out onto the pitch. I still can’t quite believe it. We have to give it our best shot.
“It is a fairytale. I played in the last cup we won – the Intermediate Cup in 1995 – and that was a big achievement at that time, but this is colossal compared to that. This is a different level.
“It is going to be tough. Crusaders are a top team. But if we can compete with them physically and stay in the match for as long as we can we are bound to create chances and it’s just about taking them.”
Ballinamallard United is at the heart of the local community. Nearly everyone in the village, which has been gripped by cup final fever and bedecked with blue and white bunting, seems to have some sort of link to the football club.
More than 2,000 enthusiastic fans are expected to make the journey to Belfast for today’s showpiece decider – quite a following given that the village only has a population of around 1,400.
Support for Harry McConkey and his team, who beat Warrenpoint Town on penalties in a tense semi-final, will come from across Fermanagh and beyond, with busloads of fans due to make the trip to Windsor from neighbouring counties such as Tyrone and Sligo.
Among the blue and white army will be long-time Mallards supporters Robert Deane and Trevor Neely.
Robert has been supporting ‘the Ducks’ for over 30 years. His late uncle, Billy Aiken, was a founder member of the club.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams Ballinamallard would be playing Premiership football and now here we are on the verge of the biggest day in our history, playing in the Irish Cup final,” he said.
“There are quite a number of buses going from Ballinamallard and others from around the county and further afield, so hopefully there will be a great crowd.
“I had a dream a number of weeks ago that Ballinamallard are going to win 1-0. I am not a betting man, but I put a bet on it.”
Robert, 54, is also a Leicester City fan. And after their miraculous Premier League win in 2016, he knows anything is possible.
“On the day it is possible. We have nothing to lose. All the pressure is on Stephen Baxter and Crusaders as they are big favourites,” he added.
Trevor, a retired civil servant, has also been supporting the club since the 1980s.
“It is quite a turnaround from 12 months ago when we were relegated to the Championship and everyone was down in the dumps,” he said.
“What has happened this last few weeks is just incredible. The buzz about the place is unbelievable. Everybody is talking about the cup final. It is just fantastic and has lifted the whole village beyond belief. It is just incredible.”
Trevor knows the Mallards are massive underdogs, but says he’s “quietly confident” his side can win.
“It would be great if we could pull it off,” he added.
“I just hope it doesn’t go to penalties as I don’t think my heart could take it!”
Others associated with the club are also confident that the Mallards can pull off a shock result against ‘the Hatchetmen’.
Teddy Elliott, who played for the club in the 1950s, will be part of the Ballinamallard United Legends line-up that will take to the Windsor Park pitch alongside the Crusaders Legends prior to kick-off.
“This is a momentous occasion for the whole village and the whole community,” he said.
“We are looking for a good result and we may well get it.”
Gordon McKinley, 59, who plays alongside Teddy in the village’s walking football group, has a feeling the final could finish 1-1 and go to extra time and penalties.
“It is a huge day for Ballinamallard and we are hoping to bring the cup back to Fermanagh, but we will enjoy our day regardless,” he said.
Also predicting a tight contest and a narrow win for the Ducks, Noel Fallis, a former Ballinamallard player, manager and committee member, added: “There is great excitement, ticket sales are going well and it will be a great day out.
“We have always given Crusaders a good game, so hopefully we can compete with them.”
If the Mallards can somehow defy the odds and cause the biggest Irish Cup upset in more than 40 years, there will be some serious partying done in Co Fermanagh tonight – and probably for several days to come!
• Primary school pupils predicting victory for ‘the Mallards’
Excited pupils at Ballinamallard Primary School are confident their village club can pull off a cup upset and beat Crusaders in the Irish Cup final.
Many pupils from the school will travel to today’s game at Windsor Park, with some of them even due to be involved in a match beforehand involving youth players from Ballinamallard and Crusaders – a contest they also hope to win.
Yesterday the coveted Irish Cup trophy was due to be brought into the school, giving the young people the chance to get their hands on the silverware.
And while P6 and P7 pupils who are also part of the Mallards’ youth coaching programme have different views on what today’s scoreline might be, they all share the belief that the Irish Cup will be returning to Co Fermanagh this evening.
P6 pupil Reagan, a midfielder, was probably a bit optimistic with his prediction of 200-nil to Ballinamallard, but his classmates and fellow Mallards youth players were all equally confident that there will be blue and white ribbons on the cup come full-time.
Thomas, a right winger, said he thinks the game will finish nil-nil, with the Mallards coming out 5-4 winners on penalties, while Alice, who plays in defence, said: “I think we are going to win 2-1, but it might go to penalties.”
James, a midfielder, is predicting 3-2 to Ballinamallard, while P6 pupil Zac, a left back, added: “I think 4-2 to Ballinamallard.”
P7 pupil Robert predicts it will be 2-1 to the Mallards, and expects the goalscorers to be Ryan ‘Rocket’ Campbell and Chris Kelly.
Josh, a P6 pupil and a striker with Ballinamallard Academy, agrees that Ryan Campbell will find the net, but is predicting a 1-0 scoreline.
“The children are all really excited about the final and we would just like to wish the club all the best on Saturday. We are confident they can win,” said school principal Christina McEldowney.
• ‘Great day’ for club’s sponsors
Today’s cup final is “a great day” for the Mallards’ loyal sponsors who stuck with the club after last season’s relegation, chairman Tom Elliott said.
Many local businesses, including main sponsor Severfield (NI) Ltd, have backed the club for many years.
Brian Keys, MD of Severfield (NI) Ltd, said the company is “immensely proud” of its association with the club and wished Harry McConkey and his players all the best for today’s game.
He said: “Severfield (formerly Fisher Engineering) has been associated with BUFC since it was reformed in the 1970s. Tommy Fisher was a former president of the club and Ernie Fisher is its current president. A number of Severfield employees have also played for the club over the years and the company has also been involved in the infrastructure of the grounds and facilities, with the second pitch named Fisher Park and one of the stands at the main ground named The Fisher Stand.
“Severfield are immensely proud of its association with Ballinamallard United, having stuck with the club through the ups and downs over the years. To reach the Irish Cup final is a fantastic achievement and well deserved for all the players and local man Harry McConkey as manager of the club. Severfield wish BUFC the very best of luck for the final.”
Club sponsor Lexie Beatty, owner of the Spar store in the village, said flags, scarves and blue wigs were selling well ahead of the final.
“It is a great community club, very much cross-community as well and it is supported by everyone,” he said.
“I may as well not open on Saturday. The village will be totally empty,” he joked.
“I really don’t think the enormity of it has quite sunk in yet. It’s a dream that we might never see again.
“For a very young team that was relegated to come now and do this, it is going to be a big day of celebration,” he added.
Pointing to Enniskillen RFC’s recent win in the Towns’ Cup as proof that an unfancied team can cause an upset in a final, Mr Beatty is predicting a 2-1- win for Ballinamallard.