Familiar opponents Ards Rangers and East Belfast braced for semi-final showdown
The prospect of a derby final looms large for this year’s Border Cup, but the teams competing in the first of this year’s semi-finals have put that to the back of their minds for different reasons.
For Ards Rangers manager Lee Forsythe, it is simply the fact that he considers this semi-final to be the biggest derby the competition could have thrown up, regardless of whether Comber Rec are able to defeat their Division 1A rivals Dundonald in the following week’s semi-final (Seaview, Wednesday, 7.30pm).
As an East Belfast local, he knows his opponents well, and insists this is a theme right through both clubs.
He told The Park: “There are a lot of friendships between the two clubs… we have 11 players from East Belfast and I live there too. I’m only a stone’s throw from their ground, and I walk my dog there every morning.
“It honestly doesn’t bother me one bit, who wins the other semi-final. I know people talk about a local rivalry between us and Comber, but in my time at Ards Rangers, I haven’t seen much of it. I think it is more a historical thing between the committees and the clubs than anything.
“I actually think it’s disrespectful to even talk about the final, when we have a tough game against East Belfast to play. That game will feel more like a derby game to us, and I can tell you, they will be more motivated to beat us than anyone this season. It should be a great one to watch.”
This isn’t mere lip-service from the manager of the current Border Cup holders and Premier Division champions. He is speaking from experience.
These two already met in the first round of the Irish Cup at Inverary Park in August, and Rangers escaped with a narrow 2-1 victory, with the East denied by the woodwork on more than one occasion.
Forsythe added: “They gave us a tough game last time and this time will be no different. I know we are the only Premier Division team left in the tournament, but it’s no surprise to see the others here… Dundonald beat Crumlin Star, Comber beat Downpatrick, and East Belfast beat Immaculata. They all deserve to be in the semi-finals.
“They have a good squad, and are probably the hardest draw we could have got in the semi-finals – but we are the hardest draw they could have got, too.”
East Belfast manager Stephen Matthews and his assistant Paul Wilson admit it would be a huge event if they and neighbours Dundonald could play each other in the Border Cup final, but the thing that really matters to them is seeing the progress the club have made in the short time since they took over from last summer.
Matthews said: “The real prize to me is looking at the bigger picture. This club was one game away from folding… and now we have two senior teams, a ladies team, and a great youth set-up. We have 38 coaches, our first team won 1B and our seconds won the Templeton Cup .
2We have a five-year development plan in place, and everything is moving in the right direction. That isn’t just down to the first team, it is down to a lot of work by good people. I have never seen a community come together so much in all my life.
"We have 200 kids coming down to Inverary every week. It would be fantastic to win the Border Cup, but the bigger prize to me is bringing kids off the street and getting them involved in something positive for their community.
Assistant manager Paul Wilson has watched with encouragement as the first team have made their way through the competition, with an impressive run that has included victory over early 1A title contenders Rathfriland Rangers and defeating Immaculata 4-3 in normal time from 3-1 down with 10 men on the pitch, and seven minutes on the clock!
Such circumstances might suggest East Belfast’s name is on the cup, and as a former striker for the club, he knows well that sometimes such omens can either be for or against you.
He said: "I remember scoring the winner against Bangor in the last minute of extra time in the Steel & Sons Cup semi-final in 1992, when we won the cup, but I remember the Border Cup final against Dunmurry in 1992, when we came back from 2-0 down to equalise, but they ended up beating us 3-2 with the last kick of the game. It can swing both ways.
"East Belfast will always be a top flight team to me, and our attitude in coming in was to get us back there. All clubs have a time where things don’t go well, and people leave, but we are getting things back on track.
"It would be great to play Dundonald in the final, but we have to beat Ards Rangers first. They know what we are about from the last time we played them, and I think our boys will be even more up for this one.
"When East Belfast won the Premier Division in 1994, we had to win the last 12 games in a row to do it – so it just goes to show… anything’s possible.