No jitters for Welders and Crusaders Reserves approaching Steel semi-final
If there is any pressure in the build-up to a Steel & Sons Cup semi-final, you aren’t likely to see it in this year’s second last-four encounter between Harland & Wolff Welders and Crusaders Reserves tonight (Seaview, Monday, 7.45pm).
As the clear tournament favourites, it could be argued that the weight of expectation is weighing heavily on the Welders' shoulders, but if anyone knows Welders boss Gary Smyth, they’ll know that’s the last thing he’s feeling at the moment.
Ambition, yes. Confidence, most certainly. More than anything, a determination to overcome the disappointment of losing last year’s final so comprehensively to Carrick Rangers.
But pressure? Forget it.
Smyth said: “We are the only Championship One club left in the tournament, so obviously people expect you to win. I have a lot of faith in our ability, and without any disrespect to anyone, it doesn’t matter who we come up against - even Premiership teams.
“Everyone that was in last year’s final for us will feel they owe themselves one for their performance that day. But there is no point in talking about making the final yet, when there is a match to be won to get there.”
The Welders suffered a more recent setback - as recent, indeed, as last Saturday when they were beaten 4-3 at Tillysburn Park by Ards, who in turn replaced them at the top of the Championship One table.
However, that was only their second league defeat of the campaign, so form isn’t a pressing concern ahead of this massive cup tie. What will be causing Smyth and his backroom team headaches, though, is the condition of key first-teamers Gary Spence (foot) and David Rainey (ankle), who have missed the last few games through injury and are rated at “fifty-fifty” to make tonight’s clash.
Smyth continued: “There are no excuses, but we were missing four of our regular first team players against Ards, so it was always going to be a tough battle. But at least we have our two centre-midfielders Ryan Deanes and Craig Harris back from suspension, so that will be a boost for us.”
Injured absentees and high expectations aren’t the only things the Welders will have to contend with. There is also the factor of the unknown. As a reserve outfit, Crusaders’ second string hold an advantage as it is not yet clear how many of their first team players will feature.
“That’s why I didn’t think there was any point in going to see them play before hand - their team changes from week to week,” shrugged Smyth. “But you can only beat what’s put in front of you.
“My philosophy is to get our own house in order first. After that, everything else will take care of itself.”
Crusaders Reserves boss Gavin Arthur actually has a similar dilemma when it comes to choosing his team, as he doesn’t know who will be made available to him.
But he stresses this isn’t an issue, as the demands placed on him are entirely different to those when he was first team manager at the PSNI.
He said: “The only important thing for us going into this weekend was the Ballymena game (that the first team were playing). After that, I’ll sit down with Stevie (Baxter, first team manager) and we’ll talk about the Welders game.
“There shouldn’t be a fear factor in this for any of our players. Obviously I would like to get to the final, but all I am really interested in is getting my players into the first team as possible.
“It has taken me a while to adapt, but there is a lot of difference between managing a Championship team and a development team. There is an awful lot less pressure for a start - and you don’t realise that fully until you are away from it.
“There is a level of pressure for most managers to produce silverware - but it’s not so important for us. We have already spoken to the players about this, and they know that there will be pluses for them whether we win or lose.”
One of those positives will be playing in front of a potential bumper crowd in a fixture that has plenty at stake. And Arthur believes the more of these type of experiences his players have, the better for them.
He added: “We are playing the occasion now. For me, this game will be as much about man-managing the players as the tactics on the pitch.
“I may not know who the first XI will be on Monday, but I do know there will be a lot of young players out there, and if they can play on a stage like this, it will stand them in great stead for the future.”
As two of Northern Ireland’s brightest young managers in the game, it is clear there is a lot of mutual respect between Smyth and Arthur, who not only played together at Glenavon, but also completed the second part of their UEFA B coaching badge together in the summer.
You can almost certainly be assured of an entertaining encounter in this game, and be equally sure that the winning manager will leave with the best wishes of his counterpart for the final.