On Thursday night I returned to Ballymena Showgrounds, ten years on from my Road Safety Quiz triumph, for an occasion of equal magnitude. Ballymena United were facing Swedish giants Malmo FF in the second leg of their Europa League qualifier, after falling to a 7-0 trouncing in Sweden. The Sky Blues knew that victory would be difficult, even against a rotated Malmo side, and their aim was to provide a good contest for the fans.
I never thought my first experience of European football would be in Ballymena, travelling there usually means going to Primark rather than watching Europa League. The Ballymena faithful turned out in force to support their side and there was a smattering of dedicated Malmo fans who travelled from Sweden. Despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered, the Malmo supporters were louder on the night. Their chants echoed throughout the ground and relations were good between both fan bases. When the match kicked off there was little to separate the sides. Malmo were playing without many of their leading lights like former Werder Bremen striker Markus Rosenberg, but they still fielded a strong side with many international players. The first major chance of the game fell to Ballymena with a close range shot that hit the post and rolled agonisingly along the goal line. I was expecting to watch a Malmo procession but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Ballymena.
Eventually, Malmo’s quality showed when former Sweden left back Behrang Safari scored a screamer from 30 yards. The ball rocketed from his left foot in the aftermath of a Malmo corner. The Ballymena supporters couldn’t help but applaud such a marvellous strike. Safari was the most experienced player on the pitch and he looked a class above those around him. It was a pleasure to watch a former Champions League player at close quarters at a local ground.
At half time Malmo led 1-0, a respectable scoreline and Ballymena manager David Jeffrey shouted from the touchline that his players were performing excellently. There was a sense of pride amongst the crowd to see their local team mounting a challenge to top European opposition. This was my first time at a Ballymena match and I would be open to returning and experiencing the warm atmosphere again. Everyone seems to know each other from the stewards to the man running the chip van. They had been on every step of this European journey, I was just there for the glory at the end.
Play commenced again and the second half saw Malmo’s quality shine through further. The attacks on the Ballymena goal became more frequent and their higher fitness level began to show. That is not to say Ballymena had no moments in the second half. They managed to win a few corners and get shots away, but the Malmo pressing was too strong. The Swedish side just always seemed to have more composure and time on the ball. Two tidy finishes midway through the half saw Malmo move three ahead and kill any hope of a fairy tale Ballymena comeback. The frustration of the Ballymena fans was largely directed towards the match officials for what they viewed as unjust decisions. A handball was given for a chest and a penalty was later awarded which was converted for 4-0. I was sat level with the linesman and his fitness levels were being widely discussed by the fans. I’d never really thought much about how fit a linesmen needed to be but there were times when he was struggling to keep up with play. Bearing in mind he was Finnish and I’m not sure his ears are attuned to the nuances of the Ballymena dialect. It was perhaps the first time in his life he had been referred to as a ‘buck eejit.’
The travelling Malmo fans would not just have been pleased with the scoreline but with the debut of 17 year old Tim Prica. I was not previously aware of Tim but his name jumped out at me from the programme when I was reading it pre match. It turns out he is the son of former Sweden and Sunderland striker Rade Prica. As the scoreline became increasingly irrelevant I became more interested in seeing how Prica would play. He started on the bench and was warming up in front of me. Quite often when people warm up, it can just be a case of going through the motions but I could tell that Prica was warming up with purpose. He was sprinting with great speed up and down the touchline and I wanted him to get subbed on to see how this transferred on the pitch. He lost the ball when he came on which could be expected on a professional debut but he quickly grew into the game. Just before play finished he had a blistering run down the left flank, leaving the Ballymena right back for dust and getting a cross in. It must have been good because the old man sitting next to me said, ‘thon boy’s flying.’ It was an intriguing and enjoyable match in a number of ways and I will be following Prica’s progress with interest. However his career ends up, he can always say he made his professional debut in Ballymena.