Ballymena United manager David Jeffrey and Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter are good pals. They have been firm friends since they both donned the blue of Linfield as players more than 30 years ago.
One of the most memorable images from last year’s Samuel Gelston’s Whiskey Irish Cup Final was their embrace at the end of a remarkable game.
It perfectly summed up the respect they have for each other and their great friendship alongside their rivalry.
However, that bond will be set aside once again today when their respective teams clash in a repeat of last year’s Irish Cup decider.
Jeffrey says thoughts of revenge have not entered his head in the run-up to the encounter at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park (2.30pm kick-off).
However, he could be forgiven for thinking that way. After all, the Sky Blues were on the cusp of lifting the cup when Josh Robinson scored a dramatic equaliser to send the game into extra time and then super sub Johnny McMurray popped up to net the winner for Crusaders in added time within that extra period.
We were bitterly disappointed and I have no shame in saying that I cried like a baby in the post match press conference. It was an awfully cruel way to lose a final and my players emptied the tank
Jeffrey, who has won more than 30 trophies as a manager, insisted at the official cup final press conference that the memory of last year is gone.
“We were bitterly disappointed and I have no shame in saying that I cried like a baby in the post match press conference. It was an awfully cruel way to lose a final and my players emptied the tank - I couldn’t have asked for any more - but there’s no point looking back,” he said.
“People might say ‘well, surely you have to win it this year’. Others talk about fate. A load of tripe. We know if we don’t perform on the day, we’ll get battered. We have shown we can compete and we have done well to get to this final, but we’re under no illusions. We know we have to give our best.”
The final NIFL Premiership table of the 2022-23 season shows Crusaders amassed 67 points from 38 matches, while the Sky Blues notched 39 points from the same number of games.
That would point to the Crues being clear favourites going in to the showpiece match, however Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter, now the longest serving manager in world football, is not having that.
You'll look at the league table and say there's a gap in the standings but in any one-off game league standings count for nothing and you've got to be prepared and ready
He said: "Obviously Ballymena overcoming Larne, who are the team of the season, in the semi-final was huge and they were deserving and comfortable winners on the night.
"They'll not be walking into this final with any inferiority complex as they'll be saying if they can beat Larne then they can beat anybody.
"You'll look at the league table and say there's a gap in the standings but in any one-off game league standings count for nothing and you've got to be prepared and ready.”
Ballymena United have a good blend of youth and experience – and a relatively young captain in Josh Kelly, who turned 24 in March. The likes of Steven McCullough, Ross Redman and David McDaid have been over the course before, while younger players like Sean Graham have bags of potential.
Crusaders on the other hand have several club stalwarts to call upon who have been there and done that in recent years.
Although club captain Billy Joe Burns is missing due to suspension, the likes of midfielder Philip Lowry (33), experienced defender Josh Robinson (30 in June) and evergreen winger Paul Heatley (36 next month) have still got what it takes to rise to the big occasion.
It should be a fascinating contest as the old pals’ insatiable desire to win kicks in within the dugouts at the National Stadium.