dreams often come true; Just ask Whitey Anderson.
And there was once the vision of the smaller, non-fashionable Ballinamlard United playing in the Irish Premiership and, against all odds, the County Fermanagh outfit making that historic move back in 2012.
The club’s rise to fame is the legendary comic strip equivalent of one of the famous Roy of Rovers epics, when a fictional footballer – later to become manager – was involved in some outrageous and questionable adventures.
But after years of pain, tears, hardened corruption and determination, the Mallards manage to write their own little chapter with Whitey in the rich fabric of Irish league football.
Growing up in Cookstown, her commitment to work took her to Farmanagh at the age of 17. When he joined Ballinamlard in 1985, you just couldn’t write the screenplay.
“The day we were promoted after the home win over Bangor, I was in complete shock,” he recalls.
“Although we were the favorites to beat them, we never expected Newry City to lose to Limavadi United.
“It was a surreal moment. We didn’t know what was going on until the vice-chairman walked across the pitch and said, ‘Whitey, you just won the championship and you’ve been promoted to the Premiership.’
Instead of sinking into fame that day, the hard work began. Our president, Daisy Quinn, and everyone else worked very hard over the summer to bring our facilities up to scratch. Next thing, I was walking shoulder to shoulder with David Jeffrey and the rest of the top managers.
“When we went to places like Windsor Park and The Oval, it was not something we were afraid of as a club, although we had the utmost respect for every team.
“I still remember my first match against the Blues at Windsor Park. We beat them 3-1. Someone told me I was too calm after that. I admitted that I was still in a state of panic. This Having said that, I wasn’t going to get too overt and overpowering about it anyway.
“When I went into the press room and saw so many media people, I thought to myself, ‘I’m used to only being a press man in games’.
“We were at the top of the Premiership after the first-round fixtures, but all I had in mind was enough points on the board to stay in the division and avoid relegation.
“When you look back it was a great milestone, a team coming from a village of 1,700 people competing with the best in the Irish league.”
But it was inevitable that Belfast’s big guns would start sniffing for United’s star men.
“That summer, Linfield was after Mark Stafford, Portadown was looking at Davy Key and Glenavan was interested in Leo Carters and Jay McCartney,” he says. “We did well to retain Stafford for so long. He had actually agreed terms with David Jeffrey, but we managed to get another season out of him.
“Nothing was more gratifying to me than when he got the opportunity to play with Linfield for five years and have had such a successful time, but we did what was right for our club at the time.
“We had a good side – Alvin Rouse, McCartney, Stafford, Chris Curran, The Carters, Key, Mark McConkey and Danny Keohane. Andy Crawford and Ryan Campbell would go on all day.
“At the end of our first season, we lost Chris (Curran) to Cliftonville. He came through our youth system and went to Manchester United for two years before returning to us.
“Then the Carters were injured for a few months, Keohan moved to London and McConkey retired. Within a season, we lost a large part of the team.
“I remember winning at Cliftonville that year and I think it was the only time they lost at home because they won the league title. They were a great side, managed by the late Tommy Breslin.
“In my time as manager, we stayed in the Premiership for four seasons – we certainly weren’t a season wonder. We finished 10th in our second season and ninth in our third.
“My last season ended in a blowout, which hinged on a row involving Carrick Rangers and Warrenpoint Town, who were caught in a relegation fight.
“It revolved around (Carrick Boss) Gary Haveron, who was apparently sitting on the touchline next to or behind the dugout when he was allegedly suspended.
“Warrenpoint filed a protest, but it was not settled by IFA, they kept deferring the decision. Warrenpoint was duly relegated and Carrick finished 10th. We reached the play-offs.
“The shenanigans went on and on, with protests and counter-protests. It was a real mess. We faced Institute in the play-offs, but because of all the controversy, the games didn’t take place until mid-June.
“I traveled to France to see Northern Ireland at the 2016 European Championships and had to come back for the double-header. We were left in the split by the skin of our teeth.
“Although we won 2-1 at home, we needed a draw 20 seconds from the end to secure a 3-3 draw at Ferney Park – it was so close.”
The highlight of that final season for Whitey was a 1–0 loss to Linfield at Windsor Park in David Healy’s first game in charge.
“We had a good record against the Blues, beat them three times in four years,” he smiles. “It was my last game against him as I had already decided to step down at the end of that season.
“Healy was named as their new boss and supposedly not to take over until the next match, but he was there and in the second half, he appeared in the dugout, as far as I was concerned, This was his first in charge of the game.
“I followed Northern Ireland for years and Healy is an absolute legend, so it was a huge thrill for me to be standing mere yards away from him on the touchline.”
But Whitey was much more than Ballinamlard’s manager – he worked as hard off the pitch as he did on it since joining the club in 1985.
“In 1996 it was decided to revive the youth section of the football club,” he recalls. “As a B division team, we felt we were not getting the support we needed, so we decided to develop a youth program and prepare our own players. In my opinion, this decision was important for all that happened in the years that followed, including the improvement of facilities, the structure of the playing staff, and promotion to the Premiership.
“The overall infrastructure of the club has improved beyond recognition. The youth section was at the center of it all. When we were promoted to the Irish league, most of our players came through the system or the mini-soccer programme.
“Youth development is no rocket science, but the club has benefited from hard work, commitment, and some foresight by a lot of people – and lots of volunteers. The founding members deserved the utmost respect.
“When we aspired to bring Irish league football to County Fermanagh, a lot of people laughed at us but we did. To be honest, I am as proud of him as I am on the pitch.
“One particular situation sticks in my head. The Sports Council invited applications for clubs to develop floodlighting, but it had a very tight schedule. I decided to give it a try. I asked to help plan and fill out the application. Went from Omagh to Lisbello to see an architect for the project.They did it for free.
“Then I went to Enniskillen to file an application and wrote a £300 personal check, although the club reimbursed me. We managed to secure the floodlights at the 11th hour, but it was an important step because two years later we had won the Premiership. Got promotion.
“If we didn’t have that light, we wouldn’t be in the Premier League until we were ready for ground-share, so that’s something I’m very proud of.
“I am also very proud that I have managed Ballinamlard in every age group – the Irish Youth League, Irish League Second Division, First Division, Championship and Premier League at under-18 level. I am not quite sure that many People have made it happen. It’s been a wonderful journey, the friendship you make and the memories you make are second to none.”