By Keith Bailie
After the success of the European Championships and the big money signings of Zenit, Anzhi and Shakhtar, all eyes have been on the rise of football in the east of the continent. However one of this season’s most unlikely stories is taking place in the far west of Europe – and it couldn’t be further away from the oil rich ascent of the the east.
County Fermangh’s Ballinamallard United have taken the Danske Bank Premiership by storm in their first ever season as a top flight club in Northern Ireland. The club currently sit in third place, ahead of the likes of Glentoran and all-Ireland champions Crusaders.
On Saturday the Mallards went to Windsor Park and defeated reigning champions and Ulster’s footballing giants Linfield 3-1 in their own back-yard, with an impressive counter-attacking style that made David Jeffrey’s side look positively outdated.
Ballinamallard is a tiny village just outside Enniskillen in County Fermanagh. With a population of just over 1,000 residents it’s more used to celebrating Best Kept Village awards rather than top-flight football success.
But the club’s rise up the divisions isn’t the work of Gretna style sugar daddy (the club’s chairman is a local shoe shop owner) but rather the fruit of 25 years worth of investment in youth football.
After establishing themselves in local junior football, the club took the brave step of joining the old Irish League B Division in 1990.
While the Mallards battled away in the lower divisions, the club set about the process of forming a forward thinking youth program. In 1996 then youth-coach Whitey Anderson started their famous mini-soccer set-up, which eventually led to the club winning the Harry Cavan Youth Cup in 2002 and 2006 and producer current Northern Ireland international Andy Little.
Incredibly, 16 years after the implementation of the mini-football programme, Whitey Anderson managed the first team to promotion with a squad that included 12 players who had come through the club’s youth system. The title success saw they become the first ever team from Fermanagh, often considered a footballing wilderness, to compete in Northern Ireland’s top division.
Tiny Ballinamallard started last season as rank outsiders for promotion, but the upstarts from Ferney Park saw off established clubs like Ards, Bangor and Newry City to win the Belfast Telegraph Championship trophy with three weeks to spare. Anderson’s side played a simple passing game married with a huge injection of pace that bore all the hallmarks of a well-drilled home-made team.
The promotion winning squad included winger Chris Curran, who returned to the club after a spell within the youth ranks of Manchester United. Curran’s performances earned him the Championship Player of the Year trophy, while on Saturday he scored in the Mallard’s 3-1 win at the national stadium. Former Southampton man Ciaran Harper and Dundee United full-back Craig Hill have taken similar paths – proving there is life after professional football.
Anderson bolstered his squad of youth products with a number of established league players, all given a second shot at the big time by Ballinamallard. 35 year-old striker Andy Crawford was widely ridiculed during his brief spell at Linfield, but on Saturday Crawford put in a performance that perhaps reminded Linfield why they signed him in first place. The forwards goals played a crucial role in last season’s promotion push.
For this season Ballinamallard recruited Barbados international goalkeeper Alvin Rouse and Sligo Rovers’ League of Ireland winning captain Conor O’Grady, both of whom are rejuvenating their careers at Ferney Park.
While many tipped the fairy tale to come to an abrupt end this season, Ballinamallard United have proved they’re more than capable of competing with the best. The Mallards have put traditional clubs like Portadown, Glenavon and Cliftonville to the sword, whilst attracting home grounds that around 75% of the village’s population.
Whether or not Ballinamallard can establish themselves as regular Premiership club remains to be seen, but they’ve already proved that a strong youth system can lead to first team success even in the magpie culture of Irish club football.
While the locals might nickname their ground the Fernabeu, they actually share more in common with Barcelona’s La Masia training complex. Whitey Anderson and Ballinamallard have shown that gleaning success from by implementing youth football is not just the reserve of the world’s richest clubs.