Darren Mullen’s Newry side stand 90 minutes away from lifting the Championship trophy this weekend following a second-tier campaign to remember - and domestic bliss could yet include a dream May day out on the Irish Cup final stage against Crusaders.
Tonight’s Mourneview Park meeting was only finalised late last week following news of an unsuccessful arbitration case by Glentoran over the club’s Irish Cup dismissal due to fielding an ineligible player against Newry in the quarter-finals.
Although the Glens’ appeals process resulted in a delay over the line-up of the final last-four tie, Newry boss Mullen ignored any off-the-field drama and kept his focus on completing City’s title drive.
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Now sitting three points clear before the final game bolstered by a significant goal difference advantage, Mullen is hoping to transfer that league consistency into a cup shock.
“It is going to be a massive occasion for our club, a reward for the fans and people behind the scenes and an opportunity for the players,” said Mullen. “On a personal note, to go up against a manager of David Jeffrey’s stature is something to relish and we go in as underdogs of course but there is a cup final at stake so it’s not just about turning up for us.
“We have players who can cause Ballymena problems and this is a group who have handled pressure all season in the league, which was always our priority.
“An Irish Cup semi-final is bonus territory and the pressure is off Newry in many respects but we go in having done our homework on a well-drilled Ballymena side.
“We’ve played Premiership sides on previous occasions this season across the cups.
“And I felt we never looked out of place.
“So our goal is to stay in the game and not allow any mistakes to hurt us.
“It’s not a first-round tie in Lurgan...this is to reach the Irish Cup final.
“So we want to go in with confidence.
“Given the occasion, it’s about managing nerves but so often this season my players have proven that ability to take on pressure and also react in the right way to any setbacks.
“It’s a squad with the right mix of youth and experience and everyone is looking forward to the tie.”