Graham tells Killyleagh supporters: Don't rule out a Great Escape
If ever Killyleagh YC wanted a man to arrest the concerning slump in their Premier Division fortunes, they surely have him in charge.
Former Dunmurry Rec coach Ricky Graham took over the reigns at the Showgrounds a few short weeks ago, and although he only has 12 league games to save their top flight status, he believes it can be done.
Time is very much against them, having only taken nine points from 14, while the only two teams below them have seven from seven (Derriaghy CC) and six from 11 (Shankill United). The most likely target for them to try and overtake at the moment are Kilmore Rec who are five points ahead, albeit having played two more games than Killyleagh.
But this is the very sort of situation on which Graham thrives.
His most recent, and most dramatic turnaround yet was with Mid Ulster club Lower Maze, who he steered to safety in Intermediate A two seasons ago. He arrived after the team had gained just three points from their first 11 games to somehow earn 19 from their last 11 – a “miracle” in the manager’s own words.
As precarious Killyleagh’s current position may be, it isn’t as worrying as that at Lower Maze. Yet, in this case, the stakes seem even higher.
The Showgrounds side have been a permanent fixture in the Amateur League since its inception in 1991, and have lifted the title seven times in the years that have followed, including the famous six-in-a-row from the turn of the century.
The very thought of them slipping out of the top division seems almost unthinkable, but Graham is balancing somewhere between optimism and realism at the moment.
He said: “No team is too big to go down, and the league table doesn’t lie. I know that it will be a mammoth task to keep the club up, but it is in our own hands, and I personally believe that the players we have at Killyleagh are good enough to do it.
“The players have stepped up and we are getting a good turnout in training… about 25 for the first team and the reserves.
“In the three games since I took over, we lost a tight game in the Clarence Cup in extra time to Shankill United, we beat Nortel 2-1 away, and lost 3-1 to Ardglass, who went top of the league after just shading it.”
So, there are positives. But will they be enough to dig Killyleagh out of trouble, and ensure Graham doesn’t have that unenviable tag as ‘The Manager Who Took Killyleagh Down?’
He admitted: “People have asked me why I took a manager's job at a bottom-of-the-table club, and I tell them – I turned down an opportunity to play for Killyleagh, and it didn’t help my medal count!
“If you get an opportunity to manage a club like Killyleagh, you don’t turn it down. I have been coaching here since October and was welcomed with open arms. The passion of (previous manager) Barney Ross and (former manager and chairman) Dee Heron is incredible.
“It’s obvious that Killyleagh haven’t been the force that they used to be. That era is over. But there are still exceptionally good young players here, and it is a matter of nurturing them through with our experienced players like Hugh Dickson and John Murray.”
Chairman Dee Heron, the man who guided Killyleagh to those six successive titles as well as a famous Irish Cup semi-final in 2002 continues to be the heartbeat of the club, along with his wife Valerie.
And characteristically, he remains philosophical about the future of the club he loves so dearly.
“A lot of things have changed since I got into football about 40 years ago,” he remarked, “but there will always be ups and downs for any club – and we are no different.
“It wouldn’t be the end of the world if we went down, but it is a hard league to get back into. Maybe, if we can string a few results together, we can still turn it around.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital