Ballinamallard United v Warrenpoint Town: Unexpected semi-finalists with stories to tell

By Mark SterlingBBC Sport NI
Richard Clarke got a red card
Richard Clarke was an Irish Cup winner with Glentoran - but got sent off in the 2013 final
Tennent's Irish Cup semi-final: Ballinamallard United v Warrenpoint Town
Venue: Mourneview Park, Lurgan Date: Saturday, 30 March Kick-off: 15:00 GMT
Coverage: Live on Radio Ulster FM; text & audio commentary and video highlights on BBC Sport website

Warrenpoint Town, 10th in the Irish Premiership, against mid-table Championship side Ballinamallard United is the most unlikely Irish Cup semi-final meeting in years.

Neither club has reached this stage of the competition before and the two club captains will be the only players on the pitch on Saturday who have experienced winning an Irish Cup medal.

Mallards skipper Richard Clarke was part of the Glentoran team that beat treble-chasing Cliftonville in the 2013 final at Windsor Park - but the day ended on a sour note for the midfielder.

"The red mist came down for me towards the end of the game and I got sent off for a clash with Ciaran Caldwell," Clarke recalled.

"Thankfully, I can look back on it now and laugh because it didn't affect the outcome and I remember the players saying afterwards that I was the last person they expected to see red.

"As a standalone day out, it was the best of my career. The celebrations afterwards, when we visited all the supporters' clubs, were among the most special feelings you can have."

Richard Clarke
Clarke had three seasons at Seaview before joining the Mallards

After winning two league titles with Crusaders, the 32-year-old Castlederg native moved closer to home when he signed for the Mallards in May 2017.

He had assumed his days of chasing the game's major honours were over, but is now determined to reach the decider.

"It's an added bonus and great to be able to contribute to the club making history after being part of the squad that went down last season."

'Aussie' Griffin sets record straight

When is an Australian Irish Cup semi-finalist not an Australian Irish Cup semi-finalist? When he was born in Dundalk.

A Google search for Warrenpoint Town's Marc Griffin sees his nationality listed as Australian. It is widely referenced in the media - indeed, even the club's official website refers to the forward as being Melbourne-born in their story about him signing from Glenavon last summer.

While looking ahead to Saturday's last-four tie against Ballinamallard United at Mourneview Park, the 27-year-old forward laughed as he set the record straight.

Marc Griffin
Griffin had a season with Glenavon before moving to Warrenpoint

"I'm actually not from Australia at all - I was born in Dundalk," he explained.

He did so in a somewhat sheepish way that suggested he knew he was going to have to explain why, 10 years into his football career, it is commonly reported that he is.

"It started off as a joke amongst team-mates when I signed my first professional contract with Dundalk," he continued.

"They thought it would be a good idea for me to say I was born in Australia and, being so young, I stupidly went along with it so that's what was written on my contract.

"I get asked all the time about it - I even get phone calls from Australian clubs every so often asking if I want to join them for pre-season training. They hang up pretty quickly when I tell them the truth, mind you."

Warrenpoint beat Larne Tech Old Boys in the Irish Cup
Griffin's Warrenpoint beat Larne Tech Old Boys in the quarter-finals

Australian or not, Griffin's pedigree as a speedy forward was well established in the League of Ireland before he arrived in the Irish League when he joined Glenavon in July 2017.

He had spells with Derry City, Bohemians and Drogheda United and was a team-mate of Point manager Stephen McDonnell at Dundalk.

They are part of a group of former Lilywhites players at Milltown, something which has not gone unnoticed at Oriel Park.

"I know of quite a few Dundalk fans who are going to Mourneview to support us in the semi-final," Griffin continued.

"I've been good friends with Stephen since our playing days and, with being such a young manager, I know he was keen to bring in people he knew would do a job for him.

"Our run in the Irish Cup has really galvanised the whole club."

It's a family affair for Smyth at Mallards

Matthew Smyth
Matthew Smyth had a spell at Dundee before returning to Ballinamallard

While there may be some confusion around Griffin's background, that's most certainly not the case for young defender Matthew Smyth, who will line up for Harry McConkey's Ballinamallard in Lurgan.

The 21-year-old centre-half was born and grew up just minutes from the Mallards' Ferney Park home outside Enniskillen and came through the club's academy.

Now in his second spell with the Mallards, he was delighted to rejoin his local team after moving to Stevenage at 16 on a scholarship.

"I had two years at Stevenage, then got a professional contract with Dundee, where I spent a season with their Under-20s, but came back home when my contract wasn't renewed," Smyth explained.

"The experience in England, and especially Scotland, really helped me develop as a player and as a person. I was living on my own for the first time and had to learn to fend for myself.

"All the time I was away, I was always looking to see how the Mallards were doing.

"When I came back I was always going to sign for them again as my brothers grew up playing for them and my father was heavily involved with the club."

Given his close affiliation with the Championship side, who were relegated from the Premiership last season, Smyth can appreciate the Irish Cup semi-final appearance as much as anyone.

"We were gutted to go down but after that, and the poor start we had to this season, it's means a great deal to get to the semi-final. It will be the biggest match of my career so far."

The call which re-launched defender Kelly's career

Simon Kelly
Kelly's hat-trick helped Point beat Larne Tech OB 3-1 in the last eight

Captain and player-coach Simon Kelly is another of the ex-Dundalk group now at Warrenpoint and, as he prepares to lead the side out at his former Mourneview Park home, he remembers a phone call from then-Lillywhites manager Stephen Kenny which helped re-launch his career in 2013.

"I'd moved from Dundalk to Longford and I just wasn't enjoying it, so I kind of packed football in and went to Australia with a mate," the 34-year-old explained.

"I had started playing a bit again over there and got the love for football back. When I got back home I got a call from Stephen Kenny and signed again for Dundalk.

"I didn't play many games but it was a fantastic opportunity. The only reason I'm still in the game now was because of that call from Stephen."

The centre-half scored an unlikely hat-trick in the quarter-final win over Larne Tech OB. He is determined to overcome the Mallards and give himself the chance of winning the Irish Cup again, having done so with Glenavon in 2016.

"We beat Linfield 2-0 and it was the best day I've had in football. I remember how nervous I was all day until I got to the stadium, but once I got there I was fine," he added.

"You never know when your next final might be and that's what I've been trying to drum into our lads. The four teams that are left will be giving everything they have to sample that occasion."

Top Stories

Also in NI Sport