Football/Soccer

Ballyclare boss Harbinson targeting a 'ridiculous result' against Larne

Ballyclare's Ian Fletcher under the watchful eye of the Comrades bench during their 3-0 Lough 41 Championship defeat at Dundela on Friday evening.

County Antrim Shield semi-finals: Larne (holders) v Ballyclare Comrades; Cliftonville v Linfield

MANAGER Paul Harbinson was still in nappies the last time Ballyclare Comrades were in the County Antrim Shield semi-finals, back in 1979: "Is that an omen? I'd love to say it is."

The Portadown native read the club's history book "cover to cover" when he became their boss in their centenary year of 2019 and says: "They've done positive things, they've a great history, it's a fantastic club to be around.

"I don't support another Irish League team, I don't support anyone else, I absolutely engulf myself in the club that I'm at, as I always did when I played, that's important to me."

However, the 42-year-old acknowledges that beating former local rivals Larne at Inver Park tonight (7.45pm) would be magical: "To pull a rabbit out of the hat and get a ridiculous result and get ourselves into a County Antrim Shield Final would be absolutely unbelievable."

That's not just because of Larne's quality now, which has hugely impressed Harbinson, and their status as Shield holders, but due to his own side's poor recent form and results.

However, he still refuses to see tonight's tie as 'a free hit', explaining: "I hate using that term, but we have to use it to our benefit. We have to acknowledge that Larne are a super-power at present... I wasn't shocked at all at how well they did in Europe…

"So in a way the mentality is 'free hit'. We know we're going to face the toughest of opponents, everybody around thinks 'No chance!', so the pressure's off.

"But we have to, as a team and a club going through a really tough time, use this as an opportunity to go 'Can we manage this?'

"If we go there thinking 'Free hit, who cares?, just see what happens', we could end up getting beaten 10 - and what would that do for our confidence?"

Belief is low around Dixon Park, having taken just two points out of a possible 21 recently to leave them seventh in the Lough 41 Championship.

Harbinson admits the team has been playing poorly, perhaps over-confident after a strong start to the season, but puts their league position in perspective:

"We need to remind people what we can do, but also remember that Ballyclare were a second division [third tier] club for a long time, and we're now a much bigger club with bigger ambitions - but it's a process. Everything is 'baby steps', you've got to go through the process, there are ups and downs, and unfortunately our downs are bigger than our ups at present. We'll get there."

The Comrades hosted Linfield in this year's League Cup, eventually losing 4-0, but knocked Crusaders out of the quarter-finals of the Shield, 6-5 on penalties after a 2-2 draw.

"We have to prove to our fans who do go [tonight] that we still have the capability to manage even against the very best."

Having scored two very early goals against the Crues, Harbinson recalls "I was proud of how we managed to hold out as long as we did and looked like we might have snuck another goal or two.

"I take heart in the performance, but I also contextualise it - Crusaders did not play their strongest team, they used squad players, and they certainly didn't play to their potential either. They had a poor night and we had a good night.

"But I'll remind the players of all the positives and the opportunity they have to do that again against the best in the country."

Larne have already ousted Glentoran and Ballymena United so will be hot favourites to progress to the decider, where they would meet one of the two teams above them at the moment.

In the other Shield semi-final tonight (also 7.45pm) Danske Bank Premiership leaders Cliftonville take on champions Linfield, who are now only two points behind them with a game in hand.

The Blues edged the recent league encounter 1-0 at Windsor Park, and have only lost twice domestically this season, away to Crusaders in the league and at Ballymena in the League Cup. The Reds' only other defeat also came at the Warden Street Showgrounds, another 1-0 league loss, albeit one they avenged at the weekend. Both sides are mean defensively, so a tight, tense encounter can be expected.

* Meanwhile there's an important clash at the bottom end of Danske Bank Premiership table as 10th-placed Dungannon Swifts host Warrenpoint Town, who trail them by six points and prop up the division.

The Swifts will be aiming to pull further away from the danger zone after their 2-1 victory away to Carrick Rangers on Saturday. The 'Point also won at Taylor's Avenue late last month, to end their long losing streak, and know that another victory, at Stangmore Park tonight, would lift them above Portadown.

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