Albert Foundry Steeling themselves for a final to remember
It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention that Albert Foundry are the major outsiders for this season’s Steel & Sons Cup final (Seaview, Christmas morning, 10.45am).
It’s unavoidable that, as an Amateur League outfit taking on last year’s beaten finalists and NIFL Championship One title contenders Harland & Wolff Welders, that they will be underestimated by some… and that is just fine with Foundry boss Colin McIlwaine.
As he reflects on the fact that the competition’s sponsors, Toals Bookmakers, have been offering a chunky 9/4 for them to overturn the 1/3 favourites on Christmas morning, McIlwaine admits there is good justification why his men are considered underdogs for the occasion.
But having seen them defeat fellow Championship One sides PSNI in the quarter-final and Larne in the semi-final, there is little reason to feel anything other than confidence approaching this intriguing contest.
He said: “It’s going to be a bit of a David v Goliath game, and we are obviously the David. I don’t think it’s patronising for anyone to point that out to me, or to ask if we are going to enjoy our day.
“This is a massive thing for the entire club. It has been 66 years since we have made it to a Steel & Sons Cup final, and there are people working even harder than myself behind the scenes who deserve every minute of this, so I want everybody to enjoy it.
“Of course you have to give the Welders all the credit… they have a quality squad. Without any disrespect to anyone, I said that if we could avoid them from the quarter-final stage, we could give ourselves a real chance of reaching the final. And here we are.”
Indeed, it was at the last eight stage that McIlwaine says he began to dream of the Steel & Sons Cup final, and that his players could reach it, despite the task, even then, being against all odds.
He continued: “It’s the same as most competitions. You set out with the league as your bread and butter, and see how far you can get in the cups. Once you get to the quarter-final, though, you know that if you win, you are only one game away from the final.
“People didn’t give us much of a chance against the PSNI, and we beat them. They didn’t give us a chance against Larne, and we beat them too.
“We know that if the Welders are on top of their game, we will be right up against it. But if they aren’t, and we are, then it will be them up against it. It’s Christmas morning - anything can happen.”
What no-one should underestimate, however, is what a milestone achievement it is for an amateur club to reach the final of a competition featuring plenty of semi-professional opposition.
Immaculata did it as runners-up two years ago, the all-amateur final between Kilmore Rec and Downpatrick in 2010 was a real turn up for the books, and 2003 winners Killyleagh (who were also runners-up in 2004) are the only other club from the amateur ranks to reach this much-celebrated event since 2000.
And McIlwaine, who appreciates the significance of playing a part in this unique Christmas morning fixture, is drawn to looking at what Foundry’s journey to the final says and does for the lower ranks in the wider sense.
He said: “I love seeing Amateur League teams doing well… when they do, it’s a big boost for all the other teams involved. It’s great to see Immaculata drawing Cliftonville in the next round of the Irish Cup - it helps put our league on the map that bit more.
“I think it’s the same with us getting into the Steel & Sons Cup final. We are representing the Amateur League, and hopefully there is plenty of people who follow other teams in the league cheering us on, too.”
With a squad approaching close to full-fitness, there are sure to be some players disappointed not to feature on the day, but regardless of this and whatever happens against the Welders, each person involved in this fantastic adventure should be immensely proud of playing an important part in the history of Albert Foundry.