Stephen Small: Occasions like Irish Cup quarter-final against Glentoran can help inspire next generation of Ballyclare Comrades stars

Ballyclare's Declan Breen claims under pressure. PIC: David Maginnis/Pacemaker PressBallyclare's Declan Breen claims under pressure. PIC: David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Ballyclare's Declan Breen claims under pressure. PIC: David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
​Ballyclare Comrades manager Stephen Small believes the experience of taking on Glentoran in the Irish Cup quarter-finals will stand his young side in good stead for the future as the Dixon Park outfit seek further exposure to the big occasion.

The Comrades, in the last-eight for a second consecutive season after beating top-flight Dungannon Swifts, were ultimately eliminated as goals from David Fisher and Charlie Lindsay ensured the hosts joined Cliftonville, Larne and Linfield in the semi-finals.

Nine of the players named in Small’s starting line-up in East Belfast were aged 25 or under – captain Gary Donnelly himself is only 26 – while all four of his substitutes also fell into that category, including teenagers Michael Morgan and Michael Leetch, who turned 17 in December.

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Ex-Cliftonville defender Small is hopeful that lessons learned on the biggest stage can help even further accelerate the development of his young guns.

"We brought on a 17-year-old, have three or four 18-year-old’s and 19-year-old’s...our average age at a push is probably around 21,” he said. "By and large our squad has an age profile of 17-24 and we’re coming to a place where they’ve done Premiership teams by a lot of goals.

“I thought we showed good discipline. Understandably, I don’t think we were as good going forward as we are in our own league, but our shape, discipline and how we kept our shape in the first-half especially was really good and that’s all you can ask.

"We wanted to come out of it with a performance and credit and I think we did that.

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"Some of those lads will play at this level. Some are 17 or 18 and playing at this level and doing really well...some of these lads have a Premiership future, whether that’s with us building and going up or somebody bringing them in.

"We’ve a great bunch and they believe in what we’re doing at Ballyclare. Hopefully over the coming years we’ll see the benefit of it (the experience).”

Not only did it give their players a taste of facing the country’s elite, but also the club in general of what could be possible over the coming years.

Ballyclare, currently having a new artificial pitch laid at their Dixon Park base, are ambitious and Small was delighted to see so many academy prospects watching on from the stands.

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"Off the pitch there is a lot of ambition starting to filter through from the academy right up into the first team,” he added. “Loughgall was a four-year process...if there’s anything to learn it is not to think you’ll go up in just one year.

"You can probably go down and back up with the resources, but Portadown are finding it difficult at the minute...we just choose to do it a different way.

"While our board is ambitious, they are pragmatic about it too and I’m fully understanding of that.

"We’ve got things happening off the pitch...our academy is starting to get on track and you can see in the crowd today that a lot of them were young players from the academy.

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"Hopefully they will aspire to be Ballyclare first team players of the future and be Gary Donnelly, Liam Hassin and players like that.

"The Championship is an absolutely unbelievable league and nothing is a given, but our structures are very good.”