When Tandragee Rovers kicked off their Mid Ulster Intermediate A campaign against Seapatrick on Saturday afternoon, their secretary Steven Sterritt admitted to having mixed feelings about the absence of the most successful team in its recent history.
The promotion of last season’s league champions, and Rovers’ long-standing rivals Dollingstown to Belfast Telegraph Championship Two this summer has meant that, for better or for worse, life will go on without the only team to finish above them in two of the past three seasons.
And, publicly at least, Sterritt is divided on whether his club will benefit from the departure of their old adversaries.
“We aren’t going about saying we’ll win this or we’ll win that, but I would obviously win a league with Dollingstown in it than without them. We always had good games against each other, and they were always a big crowd puller.
“But it’s not just about them. There will be good challenges again from the usual teams that are up there each season, but you also have two very good teams coming up, in Newry City and St Mary’s, so it will be difficult.
“We thought we would be challenging last season, and ended up second, so hopefully we can give it another go this year.”
Manager Scott Walker, who came in after a rocky opening couple of months for the club, led the club to an incredible unbeaten run of league games since he took over at the helm, even managing to deny Dollingstown an early title party with a victory over the eventual champions in their title run-in.
And if their pre-season form has been anything to go by, Tandragee are set to be a true force again this season. A respectable 3-0 loss to Portadown, a narrow 4-3 defeat to Loughgall, a draw against Annagh United 1-1, and impressive 3-1 victories against Banbridge Town and Kilmore Rec.
Sterritt admitted: “The whole club is in the best shape I’ve seen it in the 12 years I’ve been here. There’s not a debt at the club, it is being run well by good people, and we have so many players that we have set up an under-17 team, and have actually for the first time, had to turn players away.”
With the club in such a healthy position, surely Tandragee might keep a keen eye on Dollingstown’s progression, and consider following their example?
“Well, Dollingstown have a lot more resources than us. We would like to make the transition (to the Championship), but unless we get the funding to get stands, it would be difficult.
“We will submit an application for Championship 2 this season – there’s no harm in it – but a lot will be down to whether we can get the funding.
“As for Dollingstown - I think they’ll be in the top four this season. We have played teams from Championship 2 and even Championship 1, and we’ve given them close games, so there’s no reason why they won’t.”
Whatever this season holds for the Planters Park men though, Tandragee and their Mid Ulster rivals won’t have failed to notice the major opportunity that Dollingstown’s departure has handed to the rest of the division.