Club focus: Immaculata
Immaculata's unprecedented rise from the Belfast & District League to the top of the Amateur League is almost complete.
As the end of the season approaches, the Belfast club are in with a good chance of catching Ards Rangers and winning the Amateur League Premier Division title.
It would be an incredible achievement for a club that lifted the 2C title as recently as 2009, kick-starting a run of six promotions in a row.
Reflecting on a decade of success, manager Kevin Lawlor said: “It's been a roller coaster for us since we left the Belfast & District League. We certainly never expected to have so much success so quickly, or to end up in the top division of the Amateur League so soon, but it's really the players who deserve all the credit.
“In our first season in the Amateur League, we won five trophies and it's just carried on from there. Our players have had offers to play in the Irish Premiership on decent money but they've stayed loyal. They deserve a lot of credit.”
As Immaculata have only played 12 league games so far this season, they've a hectic few weeks ahead of them.
“We've 14 games left in the league plus the Clarence Cup semi-final so it's going to be Saturday-Tuesday-Thursday until the end of the season, but to be honest, we're used to it. We've done it four or five years in a row now and we've always finished well. Last season, we still gained promotion despite being deducted 12 points. We only missed out on the title by one point, so that punishment still rankles.
“It's going to be tough because injuries, suspensions and fatigue start to play their part, but we will just take each game as it comes. There is still a long way to go and a lot of football to be played. Nothing has been decided yet.”
Immaculata's title hopes received something of a blow recently, when they moved out of their Grosvenor Road ground to allow new changing rooms to be fitted. The west Belfast club will finish their season at Dunmurry Rec's Ashley Park ground.
Lawlor explained: “Losing home advantage is a real blow for us, there's no doubt about that. We're very grateful to Dunmurry Rec for allowing us to use Ashley Park and it's a good big pitch with a decent surface, but it's not quite the same as playing at home. Nobody liked coming to Grosvenor and we've lost that wee edge that it gave us.
“Grosvenor is getting new state of the art changing rooms, which is fantastic news, but it's come along at a bad time for us. I believe they had to get it started before March 31, so we've just had to get on with it.”
Immaculata are also still in the Clarence Cup. They face 2C club Lower Shankill in the semi-final at Seaview on April 7. Lawlor can see some similarities between his side and the Shankill Road outfit.
“Lower Shankill are a good team. We will be preparing for the game just like we're playing a Championship club. They're in the semi-finals on merit and they have earned the right to be taken seriously.
“We've been in their position in the past and we've knocked out clubs from the higher divisions, so we know it can be done. You can see a bit of ourselves in Lower Shankill. Teams like ourselves, St. Pats and Colin Valley have come through a lot of divisions, and perhaps Lower Shankill can do that too.
“They will be well up for the semi-final, so it will be a tough contest. We will be taking nothing for granted.”
Looking to the future, Lawlor doesn't believe the club is in any rush to join the elite ranks of the NIFL as Amateur League kingpins Newington did two years ago.
“Despite all our success, it's a struggle to keep the club going financially. We need to work hard every year to keep the club at this level.
“I know from talking to people at Championship clubs that it's expensive to pay for referees and such like. I wouldn't want to commit the club to something that would be a drain on its resources. We would need to do a lot of work to the ground as well, so at the moment, it's beyond our reach. We will just concentrate on the Amateur League and try and take things from there.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital