Ballymena United v Crusaders

Irish Cup Final




3 5 7 8

Message from the President Chief Executive's Welcome

Sponsor's Welcome

David Jeffrey


Josh Kelly

Ross Redman 12 Ballymena United : Road to the Final 14 Ballymena United Squad 16 Stephen Baxter 22 Philip Lowry 24 Paul Heatley 26 Crusaders : Road to the Final 28 Crusaders Squad 30 The Match Officials 34 The History of the Irish Challenge Cup 39 The Road to the 2023 Final 42 Mascots 44









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As chair of the Irish Football Association Challenge Cup Committee, may I welcome the players, officials and supporters of Ballymena United and Crusaders to the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park.

Ballymena United last added their name to the Irish Cup in 1989 when they defeated Distillery in the final. Six Irish Cup finals have taken place on 7 May down the years: 1938 (replay) Belfast Celtic 2-0 Bangor; 1983 (replay) Glentoran 2-1 Linfield, 1994 Linfield 2-0 Bangor; 2005 Portadown 5-1 Larne; 2011 Linfield 2-1 Crusaders and 2016 Glenavon 2-0 Linfield. Both managers have huge experience in Irish Cup finals but neither has a medal as a player despite playing in several finals. As a manager David Jeffrey has led teams to Irish Cup triumphs on seven occasions with Stephen Baxter leading the Crues to Irish Cup victories on three occasions. Pride is at stake for the two friends today but there is so much more to play for with the prize being European competition. I should like to thank the Irish Challenge Cup Committee and the Irish FA staff, led by Andrew Johnston, for their endeavours which bring us to this special occasion today. My thanks also goes to our sponsors - Samuel Gelston’s Irish Whiskey - for their sponsorship. Irish whiskey has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years and it is fitting that the historically significant Samuel Gelston name has been resurrected. I wish both teams well today. I hope that the best team wins - and that we are treated to a spectacle as good as last year’s final. Conrad Kirkwood President Irish Football Association

Today’s meeting is a repeat of last year’s final and pits two of Northern Ireland football’s most experienced managers - both former teammates with great mutual respect - against each other. The Irish Cup Final means so much to the supporters of both teams but it is also of interest to the neutrals. Last year those neutrals were treated to a great spectacle which displayed the drama that makes us love the beautiful game. Extra time broke Sky Blues hearts and they will be keen to reverse the outcome this time around. It has been a long road since the clash of the Celtics - Donegal and Belfast - in round one on 13 August last year (Donegal Celtic won 3-2). St Mary’s YC, Tandragee Rovers and Crumlin United joined the big guns in the fifth round but none progressed to round six. The magic of the cup excites everyone and when I attended the Knockbreda v St Mary’s YC tie in the fifth round it was the enthusiasm of the travelling support which added most to the occasion. The St Mary’s fans embraced the opportunity to cheer their team on and they were a credit to the Mid-Ulster Football League. Along the way I watched Crusaders at Bangor and Wilgar Park and I took in Ballymena United’s strong semi-final performance which saw them overcome Larne 2-0 at Seaview. It was a late, late show for Crusaders in the other semi-final. Declan Caddell scored a delightful lob three minutes into injury time against Dungannon Swifts. His goal made for a marvellous story given that he had retired after appearing in the final in 2022 and was coaxed into playing again.




As I sat down to write these programme notes, it occurred to me that in many ways I could have simply taken a copy of last year’s piece for the programme, made a quick update to reflect the added year since 2022 and submitted largely the same words to the editor with the hope he would not notice. But I didn’t!

We are back here at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park again for the Samuel Gelston’s Whiskey Irish Cup Final and it seems nothing has changed since last year (except for the fact that we are staging the final on a Sunday for the first time due to the coronation of King Charles III yesterday). Ballymena United and Crusaders have again emerged triumphant from among the 126 teams who entered the Irish Cup at the start of the season to contest the final for a second year in succession. Given the myriad of permutations affecting the draw over multiple rounds, teams being in and out of form and other factors, the odds of last year’s finalists battling through to be the final two contestants again this year must be significant. Cup finals are all about high emotion and a look back at last year’s final helps us to understand this. The Sky Blues led from the ninth minute and must have been dreaming of the final whistle and lifting the trophy when Crusaders carved out an added time equaliser to stop the party. And not just any equaliser. Crusaders goalkeeper Jonny Tuffey, who had experienced Irish Cup heartache when he was red-carded in the penalty shootout of the previous year’s semi-final, headed forward for a last minute corner and managed to set up Josh Robinson for the goal which brought extra time.

Even then the drama wasn’t over. When most of us were settling in for a penalty shootout, Johnny McMurray had other ideas as he scored the winner for the Crues in added time within extra time! If you’re a Ballymena player, coach or supporter you will probably still be wondering how you didn’t take the trophy back up the road last year. Conversely if you’re from the Crues you probably still can’t believe you pulled it off against all the odds. The BBC captured the final whistle embrace between Stephen Baxter and David Jeffrey and that footage says it all without a word: friendship, rivalry, respect and, of course, emotion. What will it be this time? Braidmen revenge or Hatchetmen maintaining their recent great form in the Irish Cup? No-one knows yet how it will pan out and that, of course, is the beauty, mystery and everlasting fascination with the Irish Cup. Whoever you follow, enjoy the match today!

Patrick Nelson Chief Executive Irish Football Association



It is an enormous honour for us at Samuel Gelston’s Irish Whiskey to be in our second year of sponsorship of the Irish Cup, the world’s fourth oldest national cup competition, and to be in Belfast (where the very first Irish Cup final was staged in 1881), a city that has been the home of our brand since 1830.

For the first time in a number of years the football season, and the cup, have been able to progress in the normal way, albeit we all had the enjoyment of watching the World Cup in November and December and what a final that produced. Perhaps we will experience something very similar today?! In the tough economic environment in which we currently find ourselves, sport in its many forms, but especially football and the coming together of crowds to watch the beautiful game, brings us all great joy and helps to lighten our mood and guide us to look with great hope and excitement to the future. Last year’s pulsating Irish Cup final truly went all the way when Crusaders defeated Ballymena United 2-1 after extra time thanks to goals from Josh Robinson and Johnny McMurray. I’m pretty sure that this year will be no different, another rollercoaster ride for the emotions, and that the crowd will help to play an integral role in the outcome of the match. A large audience at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park will ensure that both teams get all the support they need.

The starting point of this year’s cup journey goes all the way back to mid-August last year with the first round. There is nothing quite like the excitement a cup knock-out competition imbues: nail-biting matches, injury time goals, the possibility of ties going to penalties. And the second year of Samuel Gelston’s Irish Whiskey’s involvement has continued to provide a huge amount of excitement and drama along the way - and there will no doubt be more in front of us today. Will Ballymena be able to exact revenge on Crusaders for their first win since 1989 or will Crusaders be able to retain the title for another year? Whatever the case an exciting match lies ahead. So the very best of luck yet again to Crusaders and Ballymena United as we look forward to these two great clubs and their supporters creating a grand occasion, with the worthy winners lifting the Samuel Gelston’s Whiskey Irish Cup. Johnny Neill Owner Samuel Gelston’s Irish Whiskey



David Jeffrey doesn’t need the help of a calculator or mystic to know that today’s Samuel Gelston’s Whiskey Irish Cup final might be his last ever as a manager.

The sands of time and the incalculable nature of knockout football dictate that no-one, not even one of the Irish League’s most decorated managers, can predict the future. The Ballymena United boss, who turns 61 later this year, is looking forward to his 11th blue riband showpiece match as a manager at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park. And he’s preparing to embrace the compelling occasion as he always has… like it’s his last ever dance on local football’s grandest stage. “I am 60 years of age and to be in an Irish Cup final still means a massive amount to me,” said Jeffrey. “If the day and hour that being in a final becomes anything less than what it is to me now, then I won’t be sitting here in front of you. “Please God it’s not my last but I don't know if or when I’ll be in another and that’s the long and short of it. You never know when you’ll be in another. “That’s my attitude heading into this final and that’s where my headspace is at. I have really enjoyed the build-up and now I’m focused on the game. “I know what this means and I know how I and the players will be approaching it.” Jeffrey insists he hasn’t been talking up revenge or uttering the F word (fate) after losing last year’s final in such excruciating circumstances to today’s opponents. Ballymena led 1-0 in the dying seconds of normal time, only for Josh Robinson to force extra time

with Johnny McMurray rifling home a 123rd minute winner for the Crues. “The memory of last year is gone,” said Jeffrey. “We were bitterly disappointed and I have no shame in saying that I cried like a baby in the post match press conference. “It was an awfully cruel way to lose a final and my players emptied the tank - I couldn’t have asked for any more - but there’s no point looking back. “People might say ‘well, surely you have to win it this year’. Others talk about fate. A load of tripe. We know if we don’t perform on the day, we’ll get battered. “We have shown we can compete and we have done well to get to this final, but we’re under no illusions. We know we have to give our best.” Jeffrey says former club vice chairman Don Stirling, who passed away last August, will be firmly in his thoughts as Ballymena United bid to lift the Irish Cup for the first time since 1989. “What Don did for this club over many decades was remarkable and I know he would have been delighted to see Ballymena step out in another Irish Cup final,” he said. “We are immensely proud to have Don’s signature on the back of our shirts and he will be in our thoughts before and during the final. I know he will be remembered with great fondness.” Words Darren Fullerton




Ballymena United captain Josh Kelly insists history and the scars of last-gasp heartache will have no bearing on today’s Samuel Gelston’s Whiskey Irish Cup final with Crusaders.

Kelly, who will lead the Braidmen out at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park, has endured his fair share of showpiece sorrow in sky blue since joining the Showgrounds club from Ards in 2019. The 24-year-old was a late substitute as Ballymena fell to a dramatic 2-1 defeat to Cliftonville - who scored two injury time goals - in the 2020 County Antrim Shield final. And he also started the 2020 and 2022 Irish Cup finals which were lost in extra time to Glentoran and the Crues, last year’s defeat to today’s opponents the most heartbreaking of all. United, who last lifted the cup in 1989, were seconds away from glory only for late goals from Josh Robinson and Johnny McMurray in normal and extra time to turn the tie on its head. “It’s fair to say that cup final appearances haven’t been too kind to me so far in a Ballymena shirt,” said Kelly. “There have been a few heartbreaks along the way and last year’s defeat to Crusaders was similar to the Shield final defeat to Cliftonville. “We actually turned up performance-wise in all three of my previous finals. Unfortunately things didn’t go for us, but hopefully that will change this year.” While the stinging memory of last year’s defeat to Crusaders lingers, Kelly insists it hasn’t been the driving force behind this year’s cup run. “Last year was soul destroying but there has been a big emphasis in our changing room not to look back at what happened last year,” he said.

“It’s the same two clubs going head-to-head again and the media will want to focus on last year’s final and talk of revenge, but we’re not thinking that way. “All that talk has been quashed by David (Jeffrey) and the players. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who the opposition are, it’s about us. Our only aim is to try to lift the cup for Ballymena.” While Crusaders are favourites to win the trophy for a second successive year, United have taken a lot of belief from their 2-0 semi-final win over newly-crowned league champions Larne. “We are definitely underdogs, but the fact we’ve had a good run in the cup and beat Larne in the semis, we should take confidence from that,” said Kelly, who is relishing the prospect of wearing the captain’s armband on the biggest day of the local football calendar. “It has been a massive honour to captain Ballymena this season, but to do it in an Irish Cup final will be extra special for me and my family,” he said. “It’ll be a very proud moment for me but while the final is always a really special occasion I think it’s important that we put all of that to one side. “I’ve tried to ignore all the outside noise. It’s about concentrating on 90 or 120 minutes of football and trying to get a big result across the line.” Words Darren Fullerton



Experienced defender Ross Redman hopes to repay Ballymena United’s faith in him by ending the Braid club’s long 34-year wait for blue riband glory.

The 33-year-old’s career stood at a crossroads when David Jeffrey made a surprise swoop to lure him to the Showgrounds from Glentoran in 2020. But Redman, chasing his first Irish Cup success, has emerged as a consistent and reliable cog in the Ballymena machine in subsequent years. And he knows the ultimate thank-you to Jeffrey and the club would be to deliver showpiece success to the Sky Blues for the first time since a Paul Hardy goal was enough to defeat Larne 1-0 in the 1989 final. “I came to Ballymena after a difficult period in my career,” said Redman. “I had gone on loan to Dungannon from Glentoran and I wasn’t fit having just come back from surgery. “When I met David, I knew there were a lot of people doubting me and writing me off, but I got myself right and felt I had a lot more to give and prove in the game. “It would have been easy for David and Bryan (McLoughlin) to say ‘no, you’re too old’, but they took a chance on me and I hope I have repaid them with my performances. “Ballymena is a very welcoming club and I’ve loved it here. I also know what a first Irish Cup success in 34 years would mean to everyone. If we achieved that, we would be remembered for a long time.” Redman, approaching 125 appearances for the Sky Blues, has suffered heartache in all three of his previous outings in the Irish Cup decider. Last year’s agonising last gasp defeat to Crusaders after extra time followed painful losses as a

Portadown player to Linfield and Glentoran respectively in the 2010 and 2015 finals. “I know how privileged I am to be playing in my fourth Irish Cup final and given my past experiences I’m just hoping it’s a different outcome this year,” he said. “I’ve been around the league a long time and I know you don’t always get the opportunity to play in a final. The older you get, the more you appreciate these moments. “It’s a fantastic competition and one of the big two trophies you can win here. It’ll be a great occasion but at the end of the day we are here to win a football match. “Yes, you have to savour the occasion but you also have to seize the opportunity.” Crusaders, who finished 28 points above United in the league, will be favourites as they chase the fourth blue riband success of Stephen Baxter’s 18-year reign. “We know Crusaders will be favourites, and rightly so given their league position and the players they have, but it’ll come down to who performs on the day,” said Redman. “If we don’t perform, with the quality Crusaders have they could brush us aside very easily, but we have shown we can compete with full-time teams on our day. “If we turn up and things go our way on the day, who knows what can happen?” Words Darren Fullerton




Words Nigel Tilson

Ballymena United saw off NIFL Premiership side Carrick Rangers, NIFL Championship sides Newington and Ballyclare Comrades plus recently crowned NIFL Premiership champions Larne on the way to today’s showpiece game.

First up, in round five, was a trip to Taylor’s Avenue where they needed penalties to edge past Carrick Rangers. Their next outing was a tad more comfortable as they defeated Newington at the Ballymena Showgrounds by four goals to nil. Another tricky tie followed in the quarter-finals when they made the short journey to Ballyclare. They needed extra time to see off the Comrades as they ran out 3-1 winners. Then came a game in the last four which very few thought they could win, however they overcame high flying neighbours Larne with a dogged display, deservedly progressing on a 2-0 scoreline.

Ballymena struggled in the first half. With the wind at their backs, the home side piled forward. Kyle Cherry missed a sitter for Carrick and O’Neill produced great saves to keep out a couple of efforts from Ben Tilney. Ballymena’s Joshua Kelly glanced a header into Ross Glendinning’s arms before O’Neill produced another fine stop to keep Alex Gawne’s shot out. Carrick had a couple of chances after the interval through Tilney and Gawne before they opened the scoring on 69 minutes via a close range finish from Lloyd Anderson. Ten minutes later Ballymena drew level. Kelly’s long throw-in was met by Conor Keeley and his hooked volley from seven yards hit the back of the net. In extra time Ballymena substitute Ryan Waide curled a shot inches past the post and Daniel Kelly hit the crossbar for the hosts. And so it was on to penalties. Mikey Place, Ross Redman and Paul McElroy all scored their spot kicks in the shootout, while Carrick’s Mark Surgenor skied his penalty, ex-Sky Blue Jim Ervin struck the bar and O’Neill saved Reece A double from striker Ryan Waide helped the Braidmen ease past Championship side Newington YC to book their place in the last eight. Steven McCullough rattled the bar with a well struck free-kick for Ballymena before Douglas Wilson thwarted an effort from Newington’s Gary Warwick. David McDaid wasted a good opportunity for David Jeffrey’s side before Wilson broke the deadlock with a powerful header. Ross Redman provided the assist. Three minutes later, in the 42nd minute, Redman got on the scoresheet. Waide was hauled down by Paul Donnelly inside the penalty area and Redman stepped up to stroke home the resulting spot kick. Glendinning’s effort. SIXTH ROUND Ballymena United 4 Newington YC 1

FIFTH ROUND Carrick Rangers 1 Ballymena United 1 (0-3 pens)

Goalkeeper Sean O'Neill was the hero as Ballymena edged out Carrick on penalties to advance to the sixth round. The sides were level at 1-1 at Taylor's Avenue after extra time, so a penalty shootout was required. O’Neill pulled off a series of fine saves during the match at the Loughshore Leisure Arena – plus another in the shootout.


SEMI-FINAL Larne 0 Ballymena United 2

Newington, who had performed well in the first half, pulled one back just after the break. However, Patrick Downey’s goal was a tad controversial. Ballymena keeper Jordan Williamson appeared to have saved Downey’s downward header on the goal-line, but referee Lee Tavinder decided the ball had crossed the line. Waide headed over the top and then scored on 77 minutes to make it 3-1. Good play down the left flank eventually saw McDaid fire the ball across goal and Waide was on hand to smash it home. Warwick was sent off for a poor challenge on Mikey Place but Newington rallied, with Williamson saving well from sub Nick Beta. Ballymena then missed a couple of chances before Waide wrapped things up when he got on the end of a Wilson cross and swept the ball into the back David Jeffrey’s team reached their fourth consecutive Irish Cup semi-final after overcoming Ballyclare Comrades in extra time at Dixon Park. Craig Farquhar, making his first start for the Sky Blues, found David McDaid with an excellent long pass on 18 minutes. It put McDaid in on goal, however the striker’s shot was saved at the near post by Declan Breen. Ballymena defender Scot Whiteside headed wide prior to the hosts taking the lead on 37 minutes through Caomhan McGuinness, who netted with a piledriver into the top corner. Breen saved a Robert McVarnock shot before producing a wonder stop to keep out a dipping long range shot from McDaid. Then McDaid fed strike partner Kenneth Kane, who scuffed an effort wide. Eventually an equaliser did arrive. On 64 minutes skipper Joshua Kelly got on the end of a Steven McCullough cross and expertly guided the ball into the bottom corner. With two minutes of regulation time remaining McCullough was brought down inside the area. McDaid took the resulting penalty, however his low drive was well saved by Breen. Eight minutes into extra time the Sky Blues were awarded their second penalty of the game – and this time they made it count. McDaid was bundled over in the area and substitute Andy McGrory was given the responsibility of taking the penalty. And he made no mistake. The winner came after 115 minutes when McDaid controlled a clearance from the Ballymena defence and raced goalwards from the halfway line before coolly slotting the ball into the corner of the net. of the net. It was a tidy finish. QUARTER-FINALS Ballyclare Comrades 1 Ballymena United 3 (AET)

Ballymena reached the final after defeating high flying Larne at Seaview. Champions elect Larne were expected to win the last four contest, however David Jeffrey’s side upset the apple cart with a dogged display. And the underdogs scored two excellent goals – through Craig Farquhar and Dougie Wilson – to book their place in the decider. The derby tie between the Mid and East Antrim neighbours produced little in the way of goalmouth action across the piece, however the Braidmen delivered when it mattered. Chances were few and far between in a cagey first half. Just after the half-hour mark Ballymena produced the best move of the half. Ross Redman fired in a pinpoint cross to the onrushing Sean Graham and his header forced a superb save from Larne keeper Rohan Ferguson. Defences continued to be on top at the start of the second half. Larne striker Andrew Ryan skied a shot before Ballymena’s Graham fired an effort over the top from distance and Lee Bonis just failed to connect with a Leroy Millar delivery following a slick Larne move. On 67 minutes Larne substitute Joe Thomson shot straight at Ballymena keeper Sean O’Neill and a minute later Ballymena took the lead. Redman delivered a corner towards the back post and Farquhar powerfully headed the ball past Ferguson. Larne swept forward in search of an equaliser. Tomas Cosgrove crossed for Ryan and he steered a header inches over the bar from eight yards. In the 83rd minute Ballymena doubled their lead. Larne conceded a free-kick on the edge of the area and Wilson stepped up to expertly clip the ball into the top corner. It was a wonderful hit.





27 03

Jordan Williamson Goalkeeper

Sean O’Neill Goalkeeper

Marcus Thompson Goalkeeper

Ross Redman Defender

In his fifth season with the club. Signed from PSNI and had previous experience with Crusaders and Knockbreda. He played in last year’s final and this season has been competing with Sean O’Neill for the number one jersey. Jordan will be eager to get the nod for a starting place this afternoon. Fine shot stopper.

Sean is back at the Showgrounds for the second time in his career having previously played with the Sky Blues under then manager Tommy Wright before joining Crusaders with whom he won a number of honours. Commanding keeper who likes to keep his defenders on their toes. Despite carrying an injury he was one of the heroes of the excellent semi-final victory over Larne last month.

After signing from Linfield in January of this year, Marcus made his senior debut last month with an excellent performance in a league game against Portadown just short of his 17th birthday. Highly regarded at the Showgrounds, he looks to have a promising career ahead of him.

Former Portadown and Glentoran player Ross has vast experience in the Irish League and has been a vital member of the side since joining three seasons ago. United’s Player of the Year two seasons ago. Played in last year’s’s final and will be aiming to go one better this time around by getting a winner’s medal.

20 35 04 05

Robert McVarnock Defender

Craig Farquhar Defender

Douglas Wilson Defender

Scot Whiteside Defender

Robert was signed at the start of January from Newington after impressing when they played United earlier in the season in the League Cup. With his all-action style and resolute defensive qualities, Robert has quickly established himself in the team and has become a firm fans’ favourite at the Showgrounds. Loves to get forward and join the attack. Looks to have a bright future in the Irish League and would love to get his hands on a winner’s medal in his first season with the Sky Blues.

Ballymena lad Craig made his breakthrough to the first team at the start of March and since then has grown in confidence with some assured performances. A product of the United youth academy, he spent last season on loan at Dundela to get experience and has benefitted from that stint. Craig got his first senior goal when he scored United’s opener in the semi-final against Larne and was outstanding in an excellent defensive display in that game.

Dougie signed from Dungannon Swifts at the start of the 2021-22 season but missed a large part of last season, including the Irish Cup final, with a serious injury. Fully recovered, he has displayed very good form this campaign and scored a superb free-kick against Larne to secure a place in today’s showpiece. Dougie previously had spells with Grimbsy Town and Hull City before returning home. Has shown he is a man for the big occasion and hopefully can repeat this today.

Scot came back into the side this term after missing two full seasons due to a serious knee injury. He has had a very good campaign and has turned in some very assured performances in the centre of defence. Another player who was outstanding in the semi final and he will once again have a vital role to play this afternoon. He has made over 90 first team appearances since joining in 2018.


Words Bill Wray (Sky Blue Review)

02 08 11


Kym Nelson Defender

Joshua Kelly Midfielder

Steven McCullough Midfielder

Sean Graham Midfielder

Kym was signed from Ards last season and was in the side that reached the final although he missed it due to suspension. He can also play in defence and his tough tackling and robust style may well be called on today. Recently clocked up 50 appearances and has scored four goals.

Josh took over the captain’s armband at the start of this season. In his fourth season at Warden Street and has made 130 appearances. An experienced member of the team and supporters will look to him to lead by example as they hope to bring the cup back to Ballymena. Previously with Ards, Josh’s all-action style and drive will be vital against the Crues.

Now in his sixth season at the Showgrounds, Steven is another player who suffered heartbreak in last season’s final against Crusaders and was also on the losing side two years previously against Glentoran so he will need no motivation to make amends today. Free-kick specialist who has scored a number of goals from outside the penalty area. Experienced player who has over 200 appearances to his name.

Sean has been in excellent form this season and has arguably been the Sky Blues’ standout player. Previously with Blackpool and Larne, the 22-year-old spent some time in the USA on a football scholarship before returning to the Irish League. Very good going forward and skilful on the ball, he will be a key man today. Had a tremendous game in the semi-final and today’s showpiece is the perfect stage for him to highlight his talent.


16 25 30

Andrew McGrory Midfielder

Evan Tweed Midfielder

George Tipton Midfielder

Michael Place Midfielder

Andrew’s game time has been limited this season due to injury but he is a very experienced member of the squad who has made more than 130 appearances for Ballymena, including in Europe, scoring 25 goals. Scored United’s goal direct from a corner in last year’s final. May not start this afternoon but a very good man to come off the bench when required. Joined United five seasons ago from Glenavon.

Evan was signed from Coleraine at the start of this season although he spent last season on loan at Ballinamallard United. Injury has curtailed the number of appearances he has made so far. Skilful midfielder who likes to get on the ball and create chances for his forwards.

Another player who signed for the club at the start of this campaign. Son of former United player Matthew Tipton, George joined from Portadown. Tenacious and combative player who again has had limited opportunities due to a long term injury. United fans have still to see the best of George and he may well get his chance this afternoon.

In his second season with Ballymena United after joining from Galway United. Made a substitute appearance last year and will again be looking to taste action this time around. Can play on the wing or at full back. Has made 52 appearances and scored five goals. Fast, tricky player who looks to take on defences.



32 10 07 18

Lewis Tennant Midfielder

Ryan Waide Forward

David McDaid Forward

Jordan Gibson Forward

A Ballymena lad who has come through the United youth academy. Tricky, pacey winger who looks to have a bright future ahead of him. Highly regarded by the United coaching staff, Lewis is an exciting talent. He was a member of the impressive County Antrim Premier team in last summer’s SupercupNI. Made his senior debut for the club two weeks ago and has signed a new deal with the Sky Blues.

Ryan signed from Linfield and is now in his third season at Ballymena. Fast, tricky frontman who has scored some eye-catching goals. Ryan has represented Northern Ireland at Under-21 level. A key member of the squad and will be looking to go one better this time around after being a runner-up last year.

Experienced striker who signed from Larne at the start of this season. David would love to get a winner’s medal this afternoon and with his excellent leadership of the line allied to his goalscoring ability an Irish Cup final is the perfect stage for this talented player.

Jordan was signed from Carrick Rangers in the summer after impressing manager David Jeffrey last season. Good link-up player who as well as being a striker can hold the ball up and play in fellow colleagues. A skilful frontman, Jordan has the perfect stage to make a name for himself this afternoon.

34 12 31

Nathan Clarke Forward

Kenny Kane Forward

David Taylor Forward

David Jeffrey MBE Manager

Another promising young player who has been producing very good performances for the U20 side. Antrim lad Nathan made his senior debut last season when he came off the bench against Dungannon Swifts and immediately made an impressive impact. Another fine prospect.

Kenny is now in his fourth season at Warden Street after he was signed from junior club Dervock. His chances in the first team may have been limited recently but with his tremendous pace he has the ability to cause defences a lot of problems. Should play a part at some stage.

Another promising member of the U20 side who has impressed the manager. Still only 16, David is a product of the youth academy and has also been with Ballyclare and Larne. Has been on trial with Aberdeen. Still to make his senior debut for the Sky Blues but has been on the bench in a number of games.

David has now been at the helm at Ballymena United for seven years and in that time he has led the Braidmen to numerous finals and, on two occasions, into Europe. Having won the Irish Cup on no fewer than seven occasions as manager of Linfield, he would love nothing more than to guide the Sky Blues to their first success in the blue riband competition since 1989. His vast knowledge and motivational qualities are second to none and United followers will be hoping these can be deciding factors this afternoon.


Words Bill Wray (Sky Blue Review)


Tommy McDonald First Team Coach

Darren Fox Goalkeeping Coach

David Douglas Performance Analyst

Bryan McLoughlin Head of Player Recruitment

Nathan McConnell First Team Coach

Formerly assistant manager to David Jeffrey at United, Bryan took over his current role at the end of last season. Highly experienced in the Irish League, Bryan’s knowledge and tactical ability combined with his player recruitment skills make him an invaluable member of the backroom team at the Showgrounds.

Former Ards and Linfield man Tommy joined United and coached the U20s before stepping up this season to the first team. Has a wealth of experience in the Irish League. Tommy was in the Larne squad which lost to Ballymena United the last time the Sky Blues won the trophy in 1989 so hopefully he can help the Braidmen to another victory this time.

Darren has been at United in his capacity as goalkeeping coach for four seasons and in that time has developed a professional and competitive set-up among all the keepers at the club. He has vast experience in this role and works tirelessly to maintain the highest goalkeeping standards. Darren recently gained his UEFA B Coaching Licence.

Ballymena man Davy has now carried out this role for 12 seasons and in that time he has revolutionised and developed the way in which monitoring and analysis can be applied to player performance. As an essential member of the coaching staff, Davy meticulously monitors all aspects of each player’s performance as well as analysing and preparing reports on opposition teams.

Nathan was part of the coaching staff in last year’s final and he will obviously be eager to help the team go one better this time. Important and respected member of David Jeffrey’s staff and was promoted from manager of the U20 side to his present position. Former United player who played for two seasons who has been at the club for four seasons

at the Showgrounds before returning in a coaching role.

Gary Crosbie Physiotherapist

Rebekah Jones Physiotherapist

Bertnel Thompson Team Attendant

Mark Craig Team Attendant

Dean Campbell Videographer

Another vital member of the manager’s staff, Gary brings vast knowledge and experience to treating sports injuries. Undoubtedly one of the busiest people in any team, the physio is always in big demand and Gary carries out his role with expertise and good nature at all times. In his sixth season at Ballymena United.

Rebekah has been with the club for three years now, helping with pre-match strappings and rubs. She also assists with pitchside first aid and medical assessment to determine if a player is fit to play. Rebekah works closely with Gary Crosbie both on training nights and on matchdays and also with the U20, U18 and U16 sides.

The quiet man who works tirelessly to make sure everything is just right and kit requirements are sorted for players and staff. Bertnel has been with the club in this role for 27 years and is a well-known and popular figure in the Irish League. Could quite rightly be called Mr Ballymena United for his undoubted dedication to the job and the club.

Mark works closely with Bertnel Thompson to look after all the pre-match and training needs of the team including vital member of the backroom team who always carries out his role with dedication and attention to detail. kit management. Unassuming but

Ballymena lad Dean is a lifelong Sky Blues supporter who has been in his role for several seasons. He is responsible for videoing home and away matches and providing analysis for the coaching staff. Dean also assists with preparing the kit on matchdays.


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As Northern Ireland football’s most experienced managers, Stephen Baxter and David Jeffrey must have thought they’d seen it all ahead of last year’s Samuel Gelston’s Whiskey Irish Cup Final.

But after 120 gruelling minutes at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park, the former Linfield team-mates were equally shellshocked. For Baxter, there was a mixture of relief and elation after Johnny McMurray’s spectacular last gasp strike in extra time secured Crusaders the famous trophy for a fifth time. Just yards away, his opposite number Jeffrey dropped to his knees after Ballymena United snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. But while everyone around them either celebrated or experienced devastation, Baxter and Jeffrey shared an embrace, a moment in time captured between two great competitors who share an insatiable desire to win. Fast forward 12 months and the duo will do it all again in a repeat of last season’s final. "David and I go back to our playing days at Windsor Park,” said Baxter. ”A lifelong friend off the pitch but like last year it all goes out the window for the duration of this football match. He'll be trying to beat me as much as I'll be trying to beat him. "We always look forward to those challenges and he'll be the first to congratulate me, as I will him, whatever way it goes.” He said managing or playing in a major cup final provides special moments in a football life and career. “Some people never get to go to one final or play in the final but we are doing it quite a bit as we have a great cup record over the last 10 years,” the Crues boss pointed out. "Cup finals are cup finals and you've got to play them as the game unfolds. It could be as tight as

last year or it could be a much more open game. Often at times a goal in the first 10 minutes of a football match can open a game up and you get some free-flowing football. "Last year was last year and a lot of football has been played since that. You just don't know what you'll get on the day but we will prepare for a game in and around what we want to do, and Ballymena will do likewise. "We don't put a lot of emphasis on what happened before. We just have to look after what happens in the future.” Baxter knows last year’s heartbreak will not be far from Ballymena minds this afternoon, but he believes they’ve already shown they are more than capable of causing an upset. He insisted: "I think Ballymena deserve huge credit, as do we, for making another final. You've got to work your way through a competition to get yourself to this showpiece game. That's not an easy feat with all the teams in there. "Obviously Ballymena overcoming Larne, who are the team of the season, in the semi-final was huge and they were deserving and comfortable winners on the night. "They'll not be walking into this final with any inferiority complex as they'll be saying if they can beat Larne then they can beat anybody. "You'll look at the league table and say there's a gap in the standings but in any one off game league standings count for nothing and you've got to be prepared and ready.” Words Mark McIntosh, The Sun



Even at the age of 33 Philip Lowry has enjoyed one of the best seasons of his life.

The Crusaders star has been there and done it all in Irish League football, winning major honours with Linfield and the Crues. Getting his hands on a trophy is nothing new to the former Derry City midfielder, but the experienced operator has produced a vintage season far beyond his expectations when it comes to finding the back of the net. Lowry has helped himself to more than 20 goals in a season when Stephen Baxter’s side have flattered to deceive at times in their league campaign, however the Irish Cup holders have shown no signs of being ready to give up their cup crown. Dergview, Bangor, Glentoran and Dungannon Swifts have been dispatched along the way, leaving the north Belfast men just one game away from retaining the famous trophy. Victory over Ballymena United in a repeat of last year’s final would mean the lucrative reward of European football next season, but for Lowry and his team-mates it’s all about the glory of silverware after failing to mount a serious title challenge. “It’s been a brilliant season for me personally. I’m enjoying every minute of every game and the accolades seem to keep coming. You have to keep enjoying these things,” said the free-scoring midfielder. “I’m just enjoying my football and going into every game not fearing anyone and just loving every second of it. I’ve managed to put the ball in the net nine times out of ten this season. “When you get a run going, it’s sometimes hard to get off it and the chances have just presented themselves and I’ve got to credit my team-mates for that.”

The midfielder said that, for him, silverware is what represents a successful season. He pointed out: “We sort of fell off in the league but we performed admirably with the number of injuries and suspensions to key men. "The Irish Cup is the big one. It's the one cup competition that means so much to the players, fans and it's always a fantastic occasion. "It would round off a great season for us if we can turn over Ballymena but we know it will be a difficult game.” Even though the Hatchetmen are favourites going into this afternoon’s showpiece match, given Ballymena’s difficult league campaign, the north Belfast men will be without influential captain Billy Joe Burns today. Burns was sent off on the night Larne clinched the NIFL Premiership title, and a subsequent three game ban ruled him out of the biggest day of the season. But Lowry believes Burns’ misfortune can provide an opportunity for someone else to be a hero. He said: “You have to look at it in the cold light of day. Billy Joe isn't playing. As big a mate as he is and as good a player as he is, it's done and dusted now and you can't turn back the clock. He won't be here so we will move on. "One man's misfortune is another man's opportunity, and there will be that added incentive where players will want to do it for Billy. "However, you don't need any more incentive when it comes to an Irish Cup Final and being the holders we will do everything in our power to try to retain the trophy.” Words Mark McIntosh, The Sun





Livewire Crusaders winger Paul Heatley insists the result is much more important than the performance when you reach the Samuel Gelston’s Whiskey Irish Cup Final.

And he need look no further back than 12 months ago when Crusaders forced extra time with a last gasp equaliser before breaking Ballymena United hearts with a late, late winner in extra time thanks to super sub Johnny McMurray’s strike. A year on, this season’s showpiece match will see the same two clubs going head-to-head in an attempt to land the biggest cup prize in the country. "When it comes to cup finals, it doesn't really matter about the performance, it's all about the result,” said Heatley, who is aiming to make it a hat-trick of Irish Cup successes during a trophy laden career. The 35-year-old further pointed out: “Massive credit to the two teams for getting to the final. To get to one cup final is fantastic but to go and repeat that this season when you know you're going to be a target in the competition is even more impressive. "It's been really good for both teams and it sets up a really interesting final. Past performances and everything like that goes out the window. It's 90 minutes of football and we know what we have to do to get the right result.” Heatley has no doubt Ballymena United’s players will be focused going in to the encounter at the National Football Stadium. But he added: “We will give it everything we have and make sure we are confident and well prepared. "It's probably down to the individual. It helps having been there before. On a personal note, the nerves might be more calm this time. Other players who maybe haven't been in the game as

long might feel the nerves. The beauty of this experience is that it's come so quickly after last year.” He also believes playing in such a big game can be a good learning curve regardless of the result. The Crues attacking midfielder said: "It will help players in getting used to the big occasions as the squad continues to grow and age. “The manager will have us well drilled. At the end of the day it's a cup final that we've deserved to get to and we'll embrace it.” If the Crues can make it back-to-back Irish Cup Final wins, they will avoid the drama of the end of season European play-offs, qualifying automatically for next season’s Europa Conference League. Heatley added: ”Every player who plays in the Irish League, especially in the top six, knows about Europe. It's something that every player wants to play in. "A few of us have been very blessed to achieve this and the gaffer has been to most countries in Europe by now. It's a great experience. It's an opportunity and a platform to challenge yourself individually and as a group to see how developed you've become and how far you can push yourself on a European stage. "It's so important for any club to achieve and it's no different for us. The gaffer sets the standards for everybody across the board and Europe is certainly on the list. We will do everything we can to make sure we achieve that for next season.” Words Mark McIntosh, The Sun


CRUSADERS: ROAD TO THE 2023 FINAL Words Nigel Tilson

On the way to this year’s decider cup holders Crusaders had to overcome opponents from the NIFL Premier Intermediate, Championship and Premiership leagues along the way.

Surprisingly, despite creating a flurry of chances, the home side were only one up at the break. That goal came when Jordan Forsythe’s inviting cross was headed home by Ebbe. The floodgates opened in the second period. Ebbe grabbed a second as he reacted quickest to score from close range when the Co Tyrone side’s keeper, Alan Buchanan, pushed out a Philip Lowry strike. Ross Clarke then nodded the ball to Ebbe and he duly completed his hat-trick with a looping header. Clarke was involved again in the fourth goal. His corner was headed into the net by substitute Jordan Owens. Lowry then played a one-two with Declan Caddell before scoring with a peach of a curler from the edge of the area. Goal number six followed. Caddell played a pass into the path of another substitute, Jonny McMurray, and he coolly slid the ball into the net from a wide angle. SIXTH ROUND Bangor 1 Crusaders 2 Philip Lowry netted twice for Crusaders as they narrowly defeated Bangor by two goals to one at Clandeboye Park. The midfielder scored on 28 minutes and two minutes after the restart to edge the Crues past the Seasiders, who almost forced extra time after pulling a goal back through Ben Arthurs. The cup holders dominated in the opening half hour and deservedly went in front when Lowry controlled a ball in from Jude Winchester and stroked it past James Taylor. The Bangor keeper made some superb saves as the Crues went for the jugular. Efforts from Lowry, Jordan Owens and Ross Clarke were thwarted by Taylor. Lowry got his second just after the break when he played a lovely one-two with Winchester before slamming the ball home. The Seasiders ruffled a few feathers when they scored on 67 minutes. After getting on the end

They enjoyed a relatively comfortable passage through the fifth round, thanks to a 6-0 win over Championship side Dergview, but things got a little tougher after that. Next up was a trip to the Co Down coast where they faced Bangor, the team of the season in the NIFL Premier Intermediate League. The Seasiders performed well against their illustrious opponents but the Crues edged past them on a 2-1 scoreline thanks to a Philip Lowry double. Glentoran provided the opposition in the quarter finals. Crusaders bossed proceedings for long spells and were worthy winners. A single goal from Jordan Forsythe was enough to get them over the line. They faced another Premiership team in the last four. Dungannon Swifts battled hard, although the Crues always had the upper hand. Baxter’s boys left it very late, however, to grab the only goal of the game. It came two minutes into added time courtesy of Declan Caddell. FIFTH ROUND Crusaders 6 Dergview 0 A hat-trick from Dean Ebbe provided the perfect start to Crusaders’ defence of the trophy. Ebbe’s three goals, and a further three from other sources, saw the Crues comfortably overcome Championship side Dergview at Seaview.


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