Albert Foundry boss Colin McIlwaine insists his club’s heartache at expulsion from this season’s Irish Cup and Steel & Sons Cup will have no bearing on their approach to Wednesday night’s Border Cup semi-final against Crumlin Star.
Last month, the Paisley Park side were delivered the crushing news that they would play no further part in either competition, due to fielding goalkeeper Andrew Dillon — a player who they had signed after the August 31 transfer deadline, and who they had signed from their Irish Cup second round opponents Shankill United.
Ironically, their scheduled opponents for the Steel & Sons Cup quarter-final were Crumlin Star, who were beaten in Fridayu night’s Steel & Sons semi-final with Dundela.
And while the fickle fingers of football fate have drawn these two sides against each other once more, McIlwaine won’t even mention what has gone before in his pre-match team talk.
He said: “To be honest, that isn’t even a factor. Obviously it was a difficult one for us to swallow, but at this point now, it is the last thing on our minds.
“We have a semi-final to play, it is the first one I have been in during my three years here, so I want to make sure we do all we can to get into the final.
“It won’t be easy — Crumlin are a great side, and they’ll be hoping to hold onto their crown as the holders of the Border Cup. They won’t let go of that in a hurry.”
It’s sure to be a mouth-watering encounter, and picking a winner is no easy task. Foundry have made a regular habit of challenging for the Premier Division title, and while Crumlin are newcomers to the Amateur League’s top flight, their knockout pedigree, as current holders of the Clarence Cup and back-to-back winners of the Border Cup, is not in question.
Nevertheless, when pushed, McIlwaine has hinted the holders may have the slightest of edges in their forthcoming tie.
He continued: “It will be close. They had a big game in the Steel Cup semi-final against Dundela on Friday night, and that could work against them, but it could work in their favour that they’ll have had an extra day’s rest over us, after our game on Saturday.
“If anything, you’d probably make them slight favourites, because we’re playing at Seaview, and they are used to playing on a 3G surface every week.”
If ever there was a game to attract the neutrals, it would surely be this one. Not only do the two sides strive to play attractive, winning football, but McIlwaine believes the similarities go much deeper.
“We both play for each other and for the shirt,” he said. “When you see how they have come up through the ranks together, you have to say, it’s just like Newington all over again.”
McIlwaine’s opposite number Sean Brown agrees. Like last season’s Premier Division champions Newington, defeat is something Crumlin have rarely tasted — a fact their manager attributes to the unique team spirit that bonds this special group of players.
Brown admitted: “In all those cup runs, there have been games where we looked like we were going to get beaten, but they pulled it out of the bag. They’ve been able to do that because they all know each other well and are fighting for each other — you can’t beat that.”
This has been a huge few days in the club’s history, particularly after Friday night’s Steel & Sons semi-final, a match Brown himself described as their biggest ever game.
Their journey in this year’s competition is something no-one involved is ever likely to forget, but now the focus must turn to the Border Cup contest with Foundry. And the Crumlin gaffer is determined their Steel Cup exertions won’t have taken a toll.
He said: “There’s no getting away from it, apart from the Irish Cup, the Steel & Sons Cup is the biggest cup competition in local football.
“But I honestly have been trying to give both competitions the same significance to our players. The Border Cup has been good to us, and we’d love to win it for a third year in a row.
“I don’t understand when clubs go out of competitions, their managers say, ‘well at least we can concentrate on the league now.’ What good does that do you when you’re not sitting at the top of the league in May? We have only played three games in the league, but I can tell you, nothing beats winning, whatever the competition.
“When you win trophies and go on cup runs, people sit up and take notice. There is a lot of competition for players in the Ardoyne area, but I don’t need to chase after them any more. I actually have coaches coming to me recommending players who want to play for us, so the future is looking bright for Crumlin Star.
“The only down-side is, in the Steel & Sons Cup, I have a lot of young reserve lads who I couldn’t include in my squad because it would have cup-tied them for the Junior Cup and Junior Shield. If the County Antrim and Irish FA are serious about pushing young players through and giving them the best opportunities, this is something they have to look at seriously.”
If it seems unusual to see Brown raise issue with anything, it may because he generally has so few reasons for complaint. While he will hope that trend continues this week, Albert Foundry will be all out to make sure it doesn’t.