It’s the first big final of the season tonight at Windsor Park is Cliftonville and Ballymena United meet in the County Antrim Shield final.
This is United’s fourth Shield final appearance in the past eight seasons and the good news is that they have won two of those, beating Linfield in penalties in 2012-13 to secure their first major piece of silverware in 24 years and they beat the same opponents 3-2 in the final in 2015-16. On their last appearance in the final however, they were beaten 4-2 by Crusaders at the Ballymena Showgrounds.
Paddy McLaughlin’s Cliftonville side are one of the most successful teams in the County Antrim Shield having lifted the trophy on ten occasions, with almost half those victories coming in the past 15 years (2006–07, 2008–09, 2011–12 and 2014–15).
Ballymena have struggled somewhat in the league at times this season and find themselves sitting 9th in the table, a far cry from last season’s 2nd placed finish but they have been without key players such as Cathair Friel and Adam Leckey throughout the season, losses which show in their goals for column.
McLaughlin’s side have slipped to 5th in the league table after defeats in their last two league games but remain only three points off the summit and only Linfield have conceded fewer goals than the Reds this season, Cliftonville have quite a favourable run of games coming up before the split in the league as they only have to play Coleraine and Glentoran from the top half so McLaughlin’s side should still be in title chase come then.
I’ll be attending the game as a neutral tonight so in terms of how I think the game will go, a lot could sway on what sort of team McLaughlin puts out. No doubt the former Institute manager would take any type of trophy in his first full season at the helm but with the prospect of a league title and being able to end the club’s Irish Cup hoodoo it would be fair to say tonight’s final is probably bottom of the priority list, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Joe Gormley, for instance, have a more limited role in tonight’s game.
David Jeffrey’s side on the other hand, well with a poorer league campaign and there being no European play-off spot to contend for the, Shield and the Irish Cup take on a great deal of importance as the side look to make up for a more lacklustre season.
I’m going to go for a narrow Ballymena win tonight, perhaps by a score-line of 1-0 as Jeffrey’s side remain capable of beating most teams in the league on their day especially if their key men are on hand.
Some of our other writers have also giving their thoughts with Richard, Rodney, Bryan and Darren all predicting a win for Cliftonville who no doubt go into the tie as favourites.
May the best team win!