Crues have the miles on the clock to pull away from Braidmen

Steven McCullough (right) was the Ballymena's goalscoring hero in their semi-final win over Newry while Crusaders' Ben Kennedy (left) says they are hoping to give the retiring Declan Caddell the perfect send off
Paul McConville

Samuel Gelston's Whiskey Irish Cup final: Crusaders v Ballymena United (today, Windsor Park, 2.30pm, BBC Two NI)

Today’s Irish Cup finalists have had to endure something of a waiting game. Crusaders saw off north Belfast rivals Cliftonville in their semi-final on April 1, but had to wait almost a full month before finding out who they would play in the Windsor Park showpiece.

Ballymena United edged out Larne in an epic quarter-final at the Showgrounds on March 5, taking their Antrim rivals to a penalty shoot where goalkeeper Sean O’Neill was the hero.

It took until April 26 for them to finally get the chance to play their semi-final. A sensational free-kick strike from Steven McCullough gave them a 1-0 win over Newry City, who had eventually been reinstated into the competition after Glentoran were found to have fielded an illegible player in their quarter-final win over the Championship side.

The saga that the numerous appeals by the Glens triggered may have hung a cloud of uncertainty over the later stages of the competition, but when it comes Irish Cup success, Ballymena have had to wait longer than that.

They last lifted the cup in 1989, following a 1-0 final victory over Larne. They have reached two finals since then, in 2014 when the lost to Glenavon and two years ago when Glentoran lifted the cup.

Crusaders, by contrast, have won the Irish Cup twice under manager Stephen Baxter – in 2009 and 2019 – and have a squad littered with cup-winning pedigree.

Captain Billy Joe Burns, who scored the winner in their semi-final victory over Cliftonville, has won the cup four times, three with former club Linfield and midfielder Philip Lowry will also be looking for a fifth cup success after a hat-trick of wins with the Blues and one with his current club.

Players such as Jordan Owens, Paul Heatley, Ross Clarke, Jordan Forsythe and Declan Caddell all know what it’s like to lift the trophy and their experience will be invaluable to the Crues today.

For Caddell in particular, a win in today’s final would be a perfect send off. He is retiring from playing to take up a position with the club’s academy and will hope to add one more honour to his list. He already has won three league titles and two Irish Cups during his time at Seaview

Crues midfielder Ben Kennedy spoke earlier this week about the desire to give Caddell that dream ending and how those more experienced members of the squad serve as inspiration

“Deccy is retiring and it would be a good send-off for him if we could lift the Irish Cup to round off his last season with the club,” said Kennedy.

“I’m lucky to be in a changing room with a lot of players who have been there, done that.

“Those boys have experienced it all before and they should be proud of what they have achieved. It’s something I want to do. I want to win as many trophies as they have.”

However, in the opposite dugout will be one of the most successful managers in the local game. David Jeffrey has seven Irish Cup wins to his name, all while I charge of Linfield but he has brought silverware to Ballymena in the form of the 2017 League Cup.

They also have Sean O’Neill on loan from Crusaders, who proved so pivotal in their quarter-final shootout victory over the Reds.

Jordan Williamson was back between the sticks for the semi-final win over Newry and will hope to regain his place for today’s final.

However, manager Jeffrey revealed that his much-changed selection for their final Danske Bank Premiership match against Dungannon Swifts last weekend was intended to increase competition for places in his cup final squad.

The game came four days after their win over Newry and featured 11 changes, but the Braidmen still ran out 2-1 winners against the Tyrone side.

Captain Leroy Miller will be one who is assured of his place. The Sky Blues successfully fended off interest in Miller during the January transfer window and will hope he is the one lifting the silverware today.

However, the experience in the Crusaders line-up may just mean that Ballymena’s wait goes on that bit longer.

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