Belfast Telegraph

Final chapter looming in this Lurgan fairytale

By Graham Luney

Knockramer Park on Lurgan's Silverwood Road is a world away from the home of Northern Ireland football, the impessive pleasuredome that is Windsor Park, now looking glorious after £31million was pumped into its redevelopment.

The venue the Irish Football Association likes to call the National Stadium is a place where dreams are fulfilled and heroes are made.

Linfield v Lurgan Celtic at Windsor Park in an Irish Cup semi-final this afternoon (3pm) - not so much Batman v Superman as Batman v a dangerously overweight Easter bunny.

But if you don't believe in fairytales why be interested in sport? Who could have imagined Northern Ireland topping their Euro 2016 qualifying group or even Leicester City closing in on a Premier League title?

Closer to home, the Blues are flying, going for a league and cup double and blowing away teams that dare cross their path.

Lurgan Celtic are fighting for promotion from Championship One and not expected to land a glove on David Healy's side.

But football's a funny old game and legendary Portadown boss Ronnie McFall wasn't laughing when the mid-Ulster minnows dumped his side out of the Irish Cup in the quarter-finals, bringing down the curtain on a remarkable 29-year managerial career. After that stunning 3-2 victory at Shamrock Park, sealed by Raymond Fitzpatrick's injury-time penalty, boss Colin Malone and his boys are allowed to dream.

The club has never before reached an Irish Cup semi-final ... well if you've come this far you might as well go all the way!

"The boys are quietly confident," says Paul O'Hara who took on chairman duties after John O'Neill stepping down due to illness. "We are in unchartered waters but there's a huge buzz around the town and the semi-final draw had us even dreaming of an all-Lurgan final! That would be an absolute dream."

Lurgan Celtic, a Co Armagh force that emerged in the early 1970s, have been based at Knockramer Park and now ground share with Oxford United from the Mid-Ulster League.

Football clubs will die without ambition and the minnows secured a place in Championship 2, for the 2009-10 season.

There was consolidation and then progress. Lurgan Celtic surged to the Championship 2 title last year, booking a place in Championship One.

Now their sights are on local football's top table, the Danske Bank Premiership. Colin Malone's side sit third in the table seven points behind H&W Welders and 12 adrift of Ards but with two games in hand on the top two. Living in the shadow of Premiership big guns Glenavon hasn't stopped Lurgan Celtic from writing their own fairytales.

"We are a small club, not flush with money," added O'Hara whose son Roan plays for the team. "We aren't a big name but we are a family club and we have tried to broaden our horizons and appeal. There has been an effort to bridge the religious divide and we've had success there with mixed playing and management staff. We are definitely a club moving in the right direction and there are plans to have a new stadium with a site not far from Mourneview Park, a few hundred yards up the Tandragee Road a possible new home for us.

"Hopefully that can be secured in the next few years and performances have certainly suggested we can compete with better teams. We are performing better than we imagined this seaosn and long may it continue.

"We do have ambitions to play in the Premiership but only through a ground share plan could that be possible in the forseeable future," added O'Hara who has been on the club's committee for 10 years.

Lurgan Celtic will be cheered on by hundreds of their supporters today. Should they reach the final, they'll be dancing on the streets of Lurgan for some time.

Belfast Telegraph


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