Albert Foundry and PSNI just one step away from history
When it comes to making it to a Steel & Sons Cup final, it is all about the sense of occasion. And with only one game separating them from that very feat, that sense will be entirely palpable for the managers of Friday night’s first semi-finalists PSNI and Albert Foundry tomorrow night (Friday, Seaview, 7.45pm).
Football may be evolving all the time, but some things never change. Mention the famous Christmas morning final to any player, manager or supporter in junior or intermediate football and - no matter what age - their eyes will light up like… well, like those of a child on Christmas morning.
It doesn’t matter whether you have played a part on the stage of Europe’s only Christmas Day fixture in the past, or whether you are venturing out for the first time - the feeling is still the same.
PSNI manager Jamesie Kirk has a genuine history with the event, and having been on both sides of the touchline… and both sides of the result. The contrast of emotions is something that will live with him forever, and he wants his players to taste that experience for themselves.
He recalled: “I won it twice as a player, with Ballyclare Comrades, in 1984 and 1986, and then lost it as manager of Ballyclare in 2008 - and believe me, it isn’t a game you want to lose.
“But whether you lose or win, it is great for players to have those sort of memories, and that is something I’ll be pushing to my players come Friday night.
“It may not be the hardest of all the competitions to win - the Intermediate Cup would probably be more difficult - but it is the most glamourous. The time of year, you always get a big crowd… and the fact that this is the furthest a PSNI team has got to. Yes, the RUC team last won it in 1993, but in the PSNI days, the club hasn’t reached the final.”
And there it is. That all-important sense of occasion. Arguably the very thing they’ll need to beat Amateur League opponents who will unquestionably be considered as underdogs on such a massive occasion.
Thankfully for all at PSNI, Kirk also has a sense of respect. His time in charge of Nortel, who compete with Foundry in the Premier Section, has taught him the quality that is coursing through the amateur game, particularly at the top tier.
He warned: “We’ll be classified as the favourites because we play in Championship Two, but I know Albert Foundry, and they are one of the best - if not the best - Amateur League sides, and have been for a lot of years. There’s about half a dozen amateur sides who could their own in our league, and they are one of them.
“We are going to be playing on a surface that neither of us are used to at Seaview, so that could be a leveller in the game.”
Another factor that is sure to level the playing field somewhat is the level of desire and commitment from both teams - and Foundry manager Colin McIlwaine believes his side will not be found wanting in this department.
He has already witnessed such qualities in abundance in their 3-1 quarter-final triumph over potential Championship One title contenders Larne, and feels they can reproduce the same standard of performance against the police.
“We go into every game with the same mindset, and I am very hopeful that we can put in a good performance,” stated McIlwaine. “I don’t think the boys will let themselves down. If we are beaten by the better team on the night, then that is different, but it won’t be through any lack of effort from our side.
“There’s no doubt we are the outsiders of the four teams left, and the Welders are the big favourites - I’d say it’s been that way for a couple of rounds now. I think we were the team that PSNI or any of the teams would have wanted to draw, but I don’t actually think there’s too much difference much difference between our league and Championship Two.
“We are one big night away from a massive occasion for Albert Foundry, and we will be giving everything to make sure we get there.”
McIlwaine may not have a Steel & Sons medal to his name, but that doesn’t mean he has any less appreciation for the significance of the prize at stake for winning Friday night’s tie.
The Foundry boss wasn’t even alive to see his club topple Crusaders 3-2 at Grosvenor Park to lift the famous old trophy for the first and only time in 1950, and the same will apply to most of those cheering them from the Seaview stands against the PSNI.
It has been a huge achievement to lead the Paisley Park men to this stage, but the thought of bringing them out onto the pitch on Christmas morning clearly raises a goosebump or two.
In his five years in charge so far, Foundry have regularly contended title honours, but McIlwaine’s highlight to date has been winning the Border Cup. But would he - or the supporters - trade that now just to take part in a historic fixture for the club?
“That’s a tricky question… very tricky,” he pondered. “When you are a manager, it is all about trophies, and the Border was my first in charge of the club.
“Thankfully it’s not a choice I have to make, and we should have a game between two good teams that may well be won by the team who want it most.”
With both teams entering this game in rich form (unbeaten at least in their last three games) and both managers sure to have their players fully motivated, this should be one not to be missed.
It may not quite be the Toals Steel & Sons Cup final, but it promises to be an occasion in itself.