McDonagh plays down significance of Comber's Border Cup tie with Immaculata
Comber Rec manager Philip McDonagh is looking forward to his first ever encounter with Immaculata in the first round of the Border Cup this weekend, but he won’t be reading too much into the outcome, either way.
The Grosvenor Road side have been the talk of junior football since their virtual year-on-year rise from the depths of Division 2C first began, sweeping three consecutive Junior Cups and a Junior Shield among their many honours en route to the Amateur League’s top division this season.
But just as the next nine or so months heralds an exciting new chapter for the Mac, it presents the very same for McDonagh and the men from Park Way.
Aside from Saturday's shock Steel & Sons Cup defeat to Islandmagee, Comber Rec have begun the new campaign in impressive fashion, with eye-catching wins against the Islanders and Kilmore Rec – an opening that suggests the manager’s complete overhaul of the first team over the summer is already beginning to pay some early dividends.
McDonagh told The Park: “We have had a couple of promising results, and we have largely been playing well, but we have to remember, it is going to take time for us to gel.
“With due respect, when I took over at Comber last September, I was left with a poor squad. A good few players left when (former manager) Eric Halliday left, and we were left with 13 players. All the board wanted me to do was to keep us in the Premier Division, which thankfully, we did.”
The manager knew the onus would be on him to rebuild the side over the summer, and he has been no slouch. Thursday’s signing of experienced former Harland & Wolff Welders captain Paul Harbinson was, incredibly, Comber’s 15th capture since the close of last season.
Ards have been the main source of the new arrivals to Park Way, supplying Samuel McCleland, Jordan Docherty, Eamonn Connor, Joel Pension and Calum James, though they have also snapped up plenty of players with Amateur League know-how, such as Johnny Watterson (Dundonald), Jason Walls (Bangor Swifts), Liam Judge (Colin Valley) and Richard Lecky (Dunmurry Rec).
Other signings include Mark Whitford (Bangor), Johnny Jess (Ballymacash Rangers), Jamie Black (Dundela) and ex-Donegal Celtic goalkeeper Gerard McVeigh.
But on Saturday, perhaps one summer transfer will capture the spotlight more than most. Prolific Amateur League marksman Declan O’Connor had been heavily rumoured to be moving to Immaculata, but instead made the decision to join Comber – and McDonagh feels he knows the reason why.
He said: “It’s fairly obvious... He played for me for six years at Dromara Village, and we both like working with each other. He’s not quite up to full fitness yet, after a while out, but will be a great addition to the squad.
“We have changed the whole set-up here and brought in a strength and conditioning coach over the summer.
“The players I have here are very energetic and enthusiastic. It is a young side – we had eight players under the age of 21 when we beat Kilmore Rec – but they have shown glimpses of what they are capable of. After our 5-0 win over Islandmagee, a supporter told me it was the best football he had seen at Comber in 20 years.”
It all bodes well for any neutral preparing to watch this Border Cup curtain-raiser. Immaculata too, are famed for their free-flowing, quick-moving brand of football, and should serve up a true test of Comber’s credentials for the season ahead.
Nevertheless, McDonagh doesn’t want to attach a great deal of significance to Saturday’s result.
He added: “It’s too early to suggest what might happen this season. We certainly aren’t going around saying we’re going to win this or that, but we are in a far better position than we were this time last year.
“I have never seen Immaculata play, but I know their mentality is strong. Their success speaks for itself, and we will be in for a difficult game.
“But it’s a one-off game – nothing more than that.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital