St Luke's not looking to be put on the spot
St Luke’s manager Sean O’Rourke has his fingers tightly crossed that a penalty shootout won’t be required to decide his team’s County Antrim Junior Shield semi-final encounter with Castlewellan Town (Bangor Fuels Arena, Tuesday, 7.30pm).
The Twinbrook-based outfit will be eager to avoid a hat-trick of heartbreak in the knockout competitions, having already lost out on dreaded spot-kicks against Basement in the Cochrane Corry Cup fourth round and Rosemount Rec in the Clarence Cup third round.
Yet despite this unenviable trend, O’Rourke refuses to drill his players in the art of the perfect penalty. Apart from the fact that there is no such thing, he believes that time spent on this aspect of training would be better spent elsewhere.
He joked: “I’ll just tell the referee in the semi-final the same as I told the one in the quarters… if it goes to penalties, we aren’t taking any. We are just walking away.
“Seriously though, you should be able to take a penalty. I could practice them all day with my boys, and if they took ten, they could score ten, but when it has come to the crunch, they have just frozen.”
That’s not to say the St Luke’s boss doesn’t have faith in his players to produce on the big stage. In fact, it has been on such occasions – penalties aside, of course – when they have shone.
He continued: “If they all show up, they are a fantastic football team. Anyone who has played us this season will tell you that.
“The higher standard teams we have beaten have all been shocked, and they have said that they couldn’t believe the league that we were playing in.”
However, Castlewellan’s joint manager John Burns is keen to stress that in this semi-final, it is St Luke’s who are from the superior level, and are therefore the standout favourites.
The Newcastle & District Premier Division boss stated: “We are expecting a tough game. They are playing at a higher standard, and having tougher matches than us on a regular basis.
“The clubs from our division who have gone onto Intermediate football - the likes of Ballynahinch Olympic, Portaferry, Newcastle, and Valley Rangers – they have all done well at that level, but we are obviously the underdogs for this one.”
Many clubs who reach the latter stages of this illustrious competition have aspirations to move onto bigger and better things, and on the face of it, Castlewellan appear to be taking steps in that general direction.
However, Burns – who manages the club together with Aidan Kelly and Charlie Trainor - insists that at this stage, nothing has been set in stone, and he is perfectly content for the club to continue to progress in their current setting.
He said: “We are in the process of building our own pitch, leased from the council, and in conjunction with Sport NI, at Bann Road Playing Fields.
“I’m not sure what the future holds for the club, and I can only answer for myself when I say I don’t have any aspirations to go any higher up.”
On the face of it, however, Castlewellan have proved themselves to be more than a match for their rivals in the Newcastle League and are still on track to hunt down current league leaders Ballyvea to capture their fourth successive title.
But, without question, the Shield is the one Burns really wants. He was in charge of the first team when they bowed out on penalties to Malachians II at the semi-final stage a handful of seasons ago, and says the remaining players from that defeat share his desire to put things right this time around.
He recalled: “That was a massive regret… we were playing well in the games up to that one, and just didn’t perform on the night. It was an opportunity missed, and there a few boys who will know they might not get a better chance than this to rectify that.
“Don’t get me wrong, it will be a big challenge, but we have been focusing on this competition this year. At the end of the day, no-one remembers the semi-finalists… only the winners.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital