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Northern Ireland League Cup Final Preview
Uploaded Friday, 17th Feb, 2017 at 12:15

BALLYMENA United and Carrick Rangers face off in the Northern Ireland League Cup Final on Saturday evening.
The sides have already met in the league on 3 occasions this season, United winning all the games, with the latest a 3-1 victory at Ballymena Showgrounds thanks to late goals from Cathair Friel and Johnny McMurray.
Tony Kane and Johnny McMurray celebrate a 90th minute goal in the victory over Carrick in January
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Latest results v Carrick Rangers (all league unless stated):
Ballymena United 3-1 Carrick Rangers, Ballymena Showgrouns, 28th January 2017. Att: 955
Ballymena United 2-0 Carrick Rangers, Ballymena Showgrounds, 12th November 2016. Att: 839
Carrick Rangers 1-4 Ballymena United, Belfast Loughshore Arena, 26th August 2016. Att: 720
Carrick Rangers 0-2 Ballymena United, Belfast Loughshore Arena, 16th April 2016. Att: 564
Ballymena United 1-0 Carrick Rangers, Ballymena Showgrounds, 19th January 2016. Att: 657
Carrick Rangers 2-2 Ballymena United, Belfast Loughshore Arena, 31st October 2015. Att: 585
Ballymena United 1-1 Carrick Rangers, Ballymena Showgrounds, 28th August 2015. Att: 874
Carrick Rangers: Road To The Final
Carrick Rangers defeated Ballyclare Comrades in the 2nd round at Dixon Park. They took the lead in the 57th minute after an excellent through ball from Gary Lavery fell into the path of Daniel Kelly who finished with style past Comrades keeper Paddy Flood. The win was sealed deep into stoppage time after Adam Salley lobbed Flood to make it 2-0.

Another away tie awaited the East Antrim men in the 3rd round with a visit to Holm Park to face NIFL Championship side Armagh City. It took half an hour for the first goal to come, Steven McCullough giving Rangers the lead with a free-kick which was curled into the top corner, giving the Armagh keeper John Connolly little chance of reaching the ball. Once again it was a stoppage time goal that sealed their place in the next round of the competition, Thomas Murray scoring with a long range shot to ensure another 2 goal victory.

Manager Aaron Callaghan had to wait until the quarter-final stage before getting a home tie, facing Dungannon Swifts at the Belfast Loughshore Arena. The home side were ahead before the 25 minute mark this time, Steven McCullough seeing his shot parried by Stuart Addis but Chris Morrow sending the ball back in for McCullough to head home from close range. They didn't have to wait until stoppage time to secure the victory in the tie, Gary Lavery sending the ball towards Daniel Kelly who nutmegged Addis and grab another 2-0 win.

The semi-final seen Carrick travel to Mourneview Park to face Glenavon, their 3rd away tie of the competition. It turned out to be a very tight affair, with both sides applying pressure and having good chances to score. The telling moment came in the 80th minute when Tiarnan McNicholl snuck through the Glenavon defence and sent his side into the final by slotting the ball past James Taylor into the bottom corner of the net.
Ballymena United: Road To The Final
Ballymena United faced Newington YC in the 2nd round at Ballymena Showgrounds. It was Newington who took the lead after just 24 minutes, Chris McFall breaking in from the right side and giving keeper Alan Blayney no chance as he fired home. United didn't take long to strike back though, Johnny McMurray crossing to the back post where Cathair Friel was on hand to head home on 30 minutes. Shortly after the half-time break Allan Jenkins put the Sky Blues ahead after another assist from McMurray. 4 minutes later the tie was all but over, Tony Kane firing home from the penalty spot after a foul on Conor McCloskey. With just over 12 minutes left in the game Newington substitute Conal Burns was sent off for a foul on Caolan Loughran, and the game was wrapped up with an 84th minute McMurray tap-in after Friel had set him up.
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While United were lucky enough to get another home tie in the 3rd round, it was against formidable opponents in the shape of Linfield. As in the 2nd round, it was the opposition who took the lead, United's young keeper Ben McCauley fumbling the ball from a corner on his debut, and Jimmy Callacher on hand to poke the ball over the line on 20 minutes. The Sky Blues came back with a vengeance though, taking just 3 minutes to level the game when Johnny McMurray went on a run inside the Linfield half before firing past Roy Carroll. United went ahead on 42 minutes after Cathair Friel scored a fantastic goal, striking with his left foot into the top left corner and dipping over keeper Carroll. 10 minutes into the 2nd half the visitors were reduced to 10 men, Ross Gaynor getting his second booking off the game. On the hour mark McMurray grabbed his 2nd goal of the game with a fine driving strike straight into the top corner of the net. Less than 15 minutes the game was secure when Cathair Friel sent a ball towards the back post and Willie Faulkner rifled home to rapturous celebrations in the packed United stand.
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The draw for the quarter-final handed United their first away tie of the competition, a trip to Milltown Avenue to face Warrenpoint Town on the agenda. It was a tense affair with both sides having early chances to go ahead and the home side being reduced to 10 men on 37 minutes when Liam Bagnall was shown a red card for a bad challenge on Jim Ervin. On 53 minutes, the 10 men almost took the lead, Conor McMenamin dispossessing Kyle Owens and somehow managing to fire wide from close range. It was the 69th minute before United finally went ahead, a poor defensive header from Aaron Traynor pounced on by Willie Faulkner who scored through the legs of 'point keeper Jonathan Parr. 6 minutes later it was 2-0 to the visitors, Darren Henderson had the ball taken off him by Dermot McVeigh but he won it back, had a shot on goal which was blocked but fell into the path of Cathair Friel to tap into the net and secure passage to the semi-final.
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As the draw was taking place, there was only ever going to be one opponent that United would be drawn against - their rivals Coleraine. A huge crowd made their way to Ballymena Showgrounds as it wasn't just a final place at stake, bragging rights were also up for grabs! As always, it was a tough game with neither side giving an inch and it was 40 minutes before either keeper was really tested, an error by the Coleraine midfield allowing Tony Kane to test Chris Johns with an excellent left-foot drive. Moments after the break Allan Jenkins should've put United ahead but failed to find the net from point blank range after he couldn't get enough touch on a long throw-in from Kane. A series of chances for the home side came to nothing and they were nearly punished when Rodney Brown hit the bar with 78 minutes on the clock. After 90 minutes the sides were level and so it was down to another half hour of action with possible penalties looming to decide the game. United took the lead just 5 minutes into extra-time when Steven Douglas fouled Cathair Friel just inside the box, Tony Kane stepping up to convert. With 2 minutes left in the 1st period of extra-time it was 2-0, Leroy Millar crossing and Friel scoring with a simple tap-in. Halfway through the 2nd period of extra-time the game was settled when sub Darren Henderson buried his header in the back of the net from a pinpoint delivery from Kane.
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League Cup History:
Carrick Rangers have never reached the final of the League Cup since it's inauguration in the 1986/87 season when it was won by Linfield under the management of Roy Coyle. This is current Ballymena United manager David Jeffrey's first chance to win it with the Sky Blues, although he won it 6 times when he managed Linfield. Ballymena United have themselves only reached the final once, in the 2014/15 season, when they were defeated 3-2 by Cliftonville.
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Manager's Pre-Game Thoughts:
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"Saturday's final comes close to a year since we joined Ballymena United, and it's fair to say it's been an incredible journey. Bryan and I didn't expect to be in a final in our first year at the club - a year that has brought different challenges, not least in the League Cup. From the potential banana skin against Newington, to the challenge of a Linfield side where a most impressive display saw us win 4-1. We were handed a difficult away tie against Warrenpoint midweek, but our application and attitude ground out a victory against a very good team who made it most difficult. What can I say about the epic encounter against Coleraine in the semi-final - no one will ever forget that phenomenal header from Darren Henderson.

To progress to the final by beating your closest rivals is what dreams are made of, but since reaching the final it has been on the back burner. The league is our bread and butter and our primary target is still that elusive top 6 finish. There has been a ban on any talk about the final, but now it's here and it's a big day for players, staff and most significantly our supporters.

What has been most pleasing this season has been the patience and understanding of the support. Players will respond to encouragements and praise far better than criticism, which can lead to frustration and mistakes. One thing we can safely say is that we are not afraid to make mistakes at Ballymena - I have talked many times of our journey being a roller coaster and that, it certainly is. Most importantly, however, the players have always shown commitment, desire and an attitude to the best that they can be. I can think of several games where during difficult periods the supporters got behind us and what we need tonight is the same - you are the 12th man.

That extra ounce of support was most evident at home to Carrick, where we dominated for a period, but only scored once. Carrick came back at us, scored the equaliser and also dominated for a period. It was a gutsy performance to get a result. On that day you saw that, despite the league standings, the gap is much closer since Aaron Callaghan took over. What he has brought to Carrick was typified by their recent dominant performance against Ards - let's not forget that on three occasions that Ards team have beaten us.

Make no mistake, the game on Saturday is going to be a tough contest and it comes down to which set of players can cope with the occasion, a packed house, Sky cameras, expectancy of the supporters and the emotion that goes with playing in a final. It's about who can handle that and give their best. We will look to give of our best and hope that it is good enough."

David Jeffrey
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Click the image to watch NIFL League Cup Final Preview
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Match Officials:
Referee: Ian McNabb. Assistant 1: David Anderson. Assistant 2: Adrian Sobieski. 4th Official: Steven Taylor.
Match Information:
Admission to the game is strictly by ticket only.

Check your ticket for the number of the turnstile you are using - the ticket back shows the area you will have access to.

Please click here for important supporters information, including details on where to park.

Kick off is 5:30pm.

Should the tie be level after 90 minutes, the game will go to two 15 minute periods of extra time each way, and if the sides are still level, a penalty shoot-out will take place to decide the winner.
This is the first chance David Jeffrey has had to lift a trophy with Ballymena United but Carrick Rangers, under the management of Aaron Callaghan, will provide extremely stiff opposition. United may have beat the East Antrim side three times already this season, but anything can happen in a Cup Final. Whether you're coming by the Translink special "Sky Blue Express" train service, supporters buses, or car, we hope you all have a fantastic day and, as always, your vocal support will be sure to spur the players on.

Match Preview by Paul Irwin