BALLYMENA Saturday Morning League chiefs have vowed to ensure the rulebook is re-written in order to avoid a repeat of the infamous ‘final that never was’, writes Stephen Alexander.
Pride of place at the recent league dinner in the Leighinmohr House Hotel should have gone to the County Antrim Junior Shield, the final of which was scheduled to be between SML rivals Carniny Rangers and Harryville Homers.
However, both teams fell foul of what has become known as the ‘five year rule’ – they both played players who had taken part in an intermediate level cup final within the past five seasons – and were both dismissed from the competition.
Several weeks later and that sad end to what had promised to be one of the biggest footballing occasions in Ballymena in a generation was still a hot topic of debate at the league dinner.
And league officials have vowed to leave no stone unturned in order to overturn the current rule, with SML chiefs submitting a proposal to that effect ahead of next season’s competition, when they will push for a similar rule to that which exists in the IFA Junior Cup, where players are only precluded from playing if they have played in an intermediate final the previous season.
“We’re all very disappointed that the Junior Shield final didn’t take place,” league chairman Davy King told guests.
“Anyone who saw the crowd at the Ace Cup final (between Carniny and Homers), there would have been two or three times that for the Junior Shield final.
“But we have to look at the positives and congratulate both teams for getting that far – it shows that the Saturday Morning League can stand up with any junior league in this province,” added Davy.
His view on the need for a rule change was backed up by league secretary Brian Montgomery, who added: “It’s a rule which is in the Junior Shield but not in the Junior Cup so you can see how teams can be caught out very easily.”
The Junior Shield episode was just one chapter in a truly memorable campaign, the thrills of which made the finale to the English Premiership look almost tame in comparison!
The battle for the biggest prize – the Division One championship – had been expected to be between Carniny and Homers but in the end, they were both eclipsed by All Saints Old Boys, who claimed the first league title in their history and end a long era of domination of teams from south of Harryville bridge.
The manner in which they achieved it – an injury time winner in their win-or-bust last day clash with Carniny – was a fitting finale to a marvellous season in a league which continues to go from strength to strength.
Noting the “colossal” attendance at the Ace Cup final as an example, Brian said: “Junior football in Ballymena is coming back in a big way.
“The league is more professional now than it ever was and I thank you all for the great work you are doing.
“Hours and hours of people’s lives are spent managing teams, getting kits arranged and so on - people don’t realise that this is all voluntary work.”
Referring to matters off the pitch, Brian queried Ballymena Borough Council’s 10 per cent increase in pitch rental prices and the continued absence of a junior stadium capable of hosting cup finals, with Michelin and Penarol once again playing host to a number of deciders.
Special tribute was also paid to the league’s many sponsors, including main league backers Tower Blinds, along with an army of other sponsors who financial contributions helped fund a stunning array of silverware at the dinner.
Councillor Beth Adger, on her first official engagement following her appointment as Deputy Mayor 24 hours earlier, gave an update on the Council’s ongoing grounds maintenance work at Wakehurst playing fields, stating that the pitches will be re-sown within the next fortnight.
Clifford Adams, representing Ballymena United, congratulated the league on its continued success, adding: “Without the players there wouldn’t be a league and the backroom staff put in hours of work that people don’t see.”
* Prior to the start of the dinner, a minute’s applause was held in respect of Ahoghill Rovers player Steven Lowry and Jimmy Porter, a former manager within the league, both of whom passed away during the past season.
* Plans were announced for a new trophy for next season, in memory of the league’s former president Wilson Mark, which has been put up by his family.
* Special merit awards were presented to FC Penarol, for hosting the Sammy Moore Cup final at the Phoenix Park ground for the entire 21 years of the competition’s history and to Harryville Homers, marking the club’s 40th year in existence.
Ballymena SML awards winners
DIVISION One (sponsored by Tower Blinds): winners – All Saints Old Boys; runners-up – Carniny Rangers.
Division Two (sponsored by Tower Blinds): winners – North End; runners-up – Ahoghill Thistle.
Division Three (sponsored by Tower Blinds): winners – Inver Athletic; runners-up – Cushendall FC.
Top Four Trophy (sponsored by Ballymena Mortgages) – Carniny Rangers.
Ace Cup (sponsored by Ace Fixings) – Carniny Rangers.
Arkmedia Cup (sponsored by Arkmedia) – Harryville Homers.
George McAuley Cup (sponsored by McAuley family) – Ahoghill Thistle.
Sammy Moore Trophy (sponsored by Clough Glasgow Rangers Supporters’ Club) – Newpark Olympic.
Rainey Cup (sponsored by Alex Rainey) – Harryville Homers.
Leighinmohr House Hotel Cup (sponsored by Leighinmohr House Hotel) – Dunloy Athletic.
Dunlop Cup (sponsored by Ballymena Shamrocks Celtic Supporters’ Club) – Atletico Antrim.
Player of the Year (sponsored by Andy Kerr): Division One – Mo McDowell (Carniny Rangers); Division Two – Chris Smiley (North End); Division Three – Gary Brown (Newpark Olympic).
Leading Goalscorers (sponsored by Andy Kerr): Division One – Paul McNeill (Harryville Homers – 30 goals); Division Two – Chris Smiley (North End – 39 goals); Division Three – Thomas Quinn (Cushendall FC – 43 goals).