IRISH LEAGUE: David Jeffrey savours big return to Irish League as Ballymena hold champions Crusaders

Crusaders' Paul Heatley is challenged by Jim Ervin (right) and Gavin Taggart
Crusaders' Paul Heatley is challenged by Jim Ervin (right) and Gavin Taggart

David Jeffrey returned with the trademark swagger and chest-thumping determination as he kick-started his Ballymena United reign in gutsy fashion on Saturday.

Five days on from his appointment, Jeffrey faced a baptism of fire with an opening fixture against Premiership champions Crusaders.

It was a much-hyped return for a man who earned 31 trophies during 17 success-soaked years at Linfield.

The mission for the remainder of this season is ensuring Ballymena remain in the Danske Bank Premiership, and on Saturday the Braid men earned a valuable point to bolster that aim.

“I am so pleased, especially for the players. You want to test yourself, and see if people respond. And the players did that,” Jeffrey beamed after the match.

“The supporters were superb, too. Before the game they were first class, and afterwards they were superb again.”

An animated Jeffrey marched across the pitch at the final whistle to salute the travelling Ballymena fans following the draw.

“People will ask why I got on the way I did at the end. ‘Big deal– you got a scoreless draw and a point at the home of the champions’. But if you look at it, it is a big deal, especially for these players,” the former Linfield supremo added.

“But we know that it is going to even bigger next week. There is no point playing like this against Crusaders, and not backing it up against Warrenpoint. That will be part of the learning, and that is the next part of the learning process.

“But it was great to be back. It is class.”

Jeffrey savoured his return to the dugout following a 23-month break.

But he admitted the final 10 minutes were “tortuous” as Ballymena held firm for the draw.

“I promised myself I wouldn’t shout at officials, but it is difficult not to get caught up in the emotion of the game,” he joked.

“The last 10 minutes were tortuous – the watch wouldn’t move for me.”

Next up for Ballymena is a basement clash with bottom club Warrenpoint Town.

“The media circus will be redundant next week. Reporters will be happy, I will be happy and it will be business as usual,” Jeffrey said.

“We are in a relegation dogfight – make no mistake.

“This point takes us a closer to safety, but we are not safe – not by a long stretch.”

Crues boss Stephen Baxter admitted his side could not find the key to unlock Ballymena’s steely defence.

“David did what I thought he would do – put out the most experienced side he could get. And make them tall and compact,” he said.

“We couldn’t find a way through – we couldn’t unlock that door in the second half. By David’s reaction at the end, you would have thought they won the league. But fair play to them.”

CRUSADERS: O’Neill, Burns, Coates, Robinson, McClean, Caddell, Carvill (O’Carroll 73), Whyte (Forsythe 60), Snoddy, Owens, Heatley.

Subs not used: Mitchell, Magowan, Clarke.

BALLYMENA: Blayney, T. Kane, McBride, Taylor, Thompson, Taggart (E. Kane 62), Henderson (Frazer 74), Jenkins, Cushley, Ervin, McVey.

Subs not used: Nelson, McNally, Faulkner.

Referee: Arnold Hunter (Maguiresbridge)