Paul Kirk has managed at the highest level in local football, leading his former club Lisburn Distillery to European competition for four years in a row – but he insists taking charge of the Northern Amateur Football League representative team in this year’s Rosebowl match with the Scottish Amateur FA ranks alongside anything he has achieved in the game.
When one of the most instantly recognisable figures in local football management announced he was joining Amateur League Division 1B side Lisburn Rangers in November 2011, it is fair to say that there were more than a few upturned eyebrows.
Yet the same infectious enthusiasm and commitment that once helped Kirk transform Distillery into one of the most feared teams in the Irish League is now having a similar effect at grassroots level within the city, earning him one of the most prestigious call-ups in Amateur football.
It’s a challenge he is clearly relishing.
Kirk told The Park: “This is the first time I have had a chance to manage my country, and I hold this right up there with anything I have ever done. It is a total honour, and I was delighted when I was asked to do it.
“It is an opportunity for me, and it is an opportunity for a lot of these young guys, who just me, I have to admit, have never been to a Rosebowl game.”
Kirk may yet have to sample the unique rivalry of the annual end-of-season clash with the Scots, but he is well aware of the importance of the fixture in the local football calendar, and has chosen a squad that reflects this.
It is a rich and wide-ranging panel, which includes some of the standout players from a total of 13 different clubs from each of the top three NAFL divisions.
And, in passing his thanks to each of those clubs, Kirk revealed that it was only through extensive and productive discussions with his fellow managers that he was able to turn his vision of a team into a reality.
He said: “There have been a lot of managers who have been helpful in allowing me to take their players, even though it is a crucial point of the season for some of them.
“I have to say Mark Holland at Kilmore was especially invaluable to me, and I’ve had John Jones and Mark Porter scouting players for me.
“It can be tough when you’re trying to win a league with your team, but it helps a lot when you have people like that to call on. I have been looking forward to getting everybody together for a while now.”
The 19-man squad took part in a training session at Stanley Park in Lisburn, and are due to be involved in further sessions on Wednesday and Friday before this Saturday’s big game at the Killyleagh Showgrounds (2.30pm kick-off).
With most players still involved in regular competitive action right up to this week, the need for a full match in preparation is possibly not as great as it may otherwise be.
However, the former Distillery boss has been meticulous in his bid to lay the foundations for a fruitful future for Northern Ireland’s amateur representatives, and even has an under-19 representative team in the pipeline.
He added: “No-one has told me whether I will get the chance to do this again, but this is the way I do things. There are a lot of good young players in the Amateur League, and you have to keep moving, with an eye to the future.”
Kirk’s success at Lisburn Rangers would appear to support his philosophy. Originally brought in to keep the then struggling club in IB, he has now secured them a promotion into next season’s 1A.
If he can rescue the Britton Rosebowl back for the NAFL from the current holders, it will top off a very special season for the experienced manager and all who have played under him.
Northern Amateur Football League Squad: Alistair Coburn (Killyleagh YC), Michael McKenna (Kilmore Rec), Brian McMullan (Ballynahinch United), Gareth Ringland (Lisburn Rangers), Scott McMillen (Shankill United), Darren Moore (Albert Foundry), Willy McBurney (Ards Rangers), Jamie Patterson (Ards Rangers), David Graham (Lisburn Rangers), Peter McCann (Lisburn Rangers), Francis Murphy (Crumlin Star), Conor Walsh (Drumaness Mills), Timothy Clarke (Nortel), Stephen Brown (Crumlin Star), Ryan Newberry (Ards Rangers), Allistair Wilson (Rathfriland Rangers), Jordan Baker (Derriaghy CC), Aaron Harris (Albert Foundry), Gary McDermott (Abbey Villa).