Future's looking bright for newcomers Ballysillan Swifts
When Ballysillan Swifts finished their first - and only ever - season in the Intermediate Division of the Ballymena & Provincial League, with only two wins from the entire campaign, they could have been forgiven for licking their wounds. Fast forward six months, however, and it seems that chastening experience could very well be the making of them.
Here we have the latest in a growing line of teams from Belfast who look well equipped to move up through the ranks, with the sky the limit in terms of how high they can take themselves.
Over the past decade, Newington YC have set the blueprint as a team who, as relative newcomers to the Amateur League, progressed at lightning speed from the bottom to the very top before eventually deciding to push up into Championship football.
In their wake, we have marvelled at the similarly swift progression of Immaculata and Crumlin Star, who have both firmly established themselves as sustainable Premier Division title challengers. In behind them, St Patrick's YM have surged up to Division 1A, while in the junior tiers, a team on the outskirts of the city, Tullycarnet, seem to be doing a similar job.
Now, as the latest capital club to the party, Ballysillan Swifts are hopeful of following that well-tread upward path to glory.
Just three months into the NAFL Division 2C campaign, the Amateur League newcomers are level on points with leaders Lower Shankill, with prospects looking good for a successful debut season.
However, as club secretary and founding member Brian Wilson explains, there are a number of different methods for measuring success, especially for a club just finding their feet.
He said: “One of the first things we did when we started out in the Ballymena League in 2012 was to set out a five-year plan, and we are already now at the stage of doing another one. We are ahead of schedule.
“We were weren’t bothered so much about winning trophies - it was all about getting things right off the pitch. Getting a committee set up, meeting with Belfast City Council, the IFA, and Sports NI, meeting with councillors like Julie-Anne Corr and Gareth McKee who have been such a great help to us, getting kids teams, getting child protection in place, seeking funding. Now we have done all of those things, we can build on it.”
Happily for the Swifts, while they were getting things right off the pitch, they were doing well on it, too. Successive promotions up through the ranks, combined with this progressive off-field work impressed Ballymena & Provincial League chiefs to the extent that they promoted them from Junior Division Two, bypassing Division One, up into the Intermediate Division.
And while it may not have been an easy ride for the Swifts, Wilson insists it was the right thing to do.
The secretary continued: “It was a massive step up for us, but it says everything about our players that they have stuck with us, even after all those defeats. They can see what we are doing here, and after that, we have a better idea about that too.
“Last season isn’t something we regret, because we were the first club in the area to offer players in the area the chance to play Intermediate level football. Most of those players hadn’t played in the likes of the Steel & Sons Cup, Intermediate Cup or the Irish Cup before, either, so it was a great experience for them.”
It may be back to Junior football for now, but if things go according to plan, these illustrious competitions will all open up once again to Ballysillan in the near future, if they can rise to Division 1C. So can they put a series of back-to-back promotions together in the seasons ahead?
Wilson added: “We’d like to emulate the Immaculatas and Newingtons of this world, and obviously there is a lot of youth development here, so we are looking good for the future.
“I think you need to get out of 2C fairly quickly, and usually the team that goes straight up from 2 , although it can sometimes be a bit longer to get up from 2A.
“We hope that the community will continue to support and believe in what we are doing for the area going forward.”