Portaferry Rovers have made a success of their first year in Intermediate football so far, but manager Johnny McGrattan admits a part of him will always miss their time in the junior ranks.
With the line-up in this year’s Junior Shield now complete, we are entering the stage of the season when things really begin to hot up in junior football.
Portaferry will have plenty to keep themselves occupied, as they bid for the Division 1C title in their first season since promotion from Division 2A.
Yet McGrattan has revealed that although his team - the current holders of the Junior Shield - are no longer eligible to compete in the major junior competitions, that hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm or interest in them.
He said: “I have missed our cup run this year. It definitely galvanized our team, and was a good distraction to have while we were going for the league.
“I’ll never forget the night of the final at Solitude. For a team like Portaferry to be in a game like that, let alone win it, was a massive thing for us.
There are a lot of people at the club who will hark back to that night for years to come, but unfortunately, you have to move on.
“It’s getting to that stage of the competition now where you’ll see plenty about it in the local papers, and I have to say, I still keep an eye out for it. I see Castlewellan are playing St Luke’s… that should be a good game.
“The thing is, I go onto the County Antrim FA website to check the disciplinary notes and our picture always comes up as the latest winners of the Shield. It’s sad that soon it will be a different team there instead of us.”
It may seem a little unusual for McGrattan to have such a strong attachment to his days in lower division football, especially considering the prolonged ordeal they had to undergo in order to secure their promotion to 1C.
The manager has pointed out that the club ‘virtually bankrupted’ itself in order to pay for refurbishment at Cloughey Road in order to bring their ground up to intermediate status, and provided positive recommendations from local politicians and representatives, only to be refused promotion by the Amateur League.
“It felt like a kick in the teeth,” admitted McGrattan, “like we had to win promotion on the pitch, and then do it all over again off the pitch."
However, happily for Portaferry, their subsequent appeal to the IFA was upheld, and they were granted the promotion they so badly wanted.
From then, it has largely been an enjoyable journey for the Ards Peninsula villagers, with their shock win in over Albert Foundry in the Clarence Cup in January a particularly eye-catching result.
Yet, as McGrattan reveals, they haven’t had things completely their own way.
He told The Park: “Once we got up, people started saying that we would do the same thing the likes of St Pat’s and Immaculata have done (with regular season-on-season promotions up through the divisions).
“But it has been a bit tougher than we were expecting. The likes of Groomsport, Newington Rangers and 18th Newtownabbey have all given us tough games, and we are by no means clear at the minute with some big fixtures ahead.
“The big aim for us is to stay in intermediate football for the next five to ten years. It will be a challenge because our average age is around the early 30s and these players won’t be able to play forever.”
The development of a youth structure at Portaferry seems to be one of the biggest potential hurdles facing McGrattan over the next few years, but for the time being, his obvious enthusiasm combined with the experienced quality of his squad mean there is surely more glory ahead for Rovers.