Rathfriland's remarkable transformation continues
Rathfriland Rangers manager Clifford Sterritt has plenty to be proud of in a successful and varied playing career, as well as his relatively short time in management - but he believes that what he is currently involved with at Rathfriland Rangers tops the lot.
That is quite a statement from a man who not only played his part in Loughgall’s promotion through the ranks of junior football up into the Irish League, but who helped them win the famous 2008 clean sweep, which as well as the First Division title, included the League Cup, Bob Radcliffe Cup, Mid-Ulster Shield and Intermediate.
Since then, he went on to establish Orchard City and took them into the Mid Ulster League, where they have won their fair share of silverware for a relative newcomer.
But what Rathfriland have achieved in less than a calendar year is giving their supporters, committee, and all involved with the club plenty to be excited and positive about as they look to what should be a very bright future.
After winning three of their first four league fixtures and with a third round fixture in the Border Cup to look forward to, it is easy to be have such a disposition - however Sterritt points out, it hasn’t always been this way.
He said: “When I came in (during February this year), I was faced with a three-man playing panel. I think Rathfriland had about 7 points at that point, and were looking like they were in big trouble.
“I think it’s fair to say now, that if I had known just how much of a job there was to do, I probably wouldn’t have taken it on. I don’t know a lot about before, but a few players had left and then when the manager left, more went the same way.
“On top of that, I had two months or so for us to play all the remaining games. I don’t think there was a time from when I came in that we weren’t playing on Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday.”
Unquestionably, the biggest challenge initially was to get players on board, but thankfully for Sterritt, and his backroom team of Lee Feeney and Johnny Black, they were able to attract players from their former club, Orchard City.
“That took a lot for them,” reflected the Rathfriland boss. “Especially as Orchard City were through to two or three cup semi-finals at the time. I really appreciated the loyalty they showed me.”
Now, with a strong squad including former Ballymena United pair Aaron Black and James Costello, as well as ex-Loughgall man Ross Black and the return of Ally Wilson from Banbridge, there is no limit to what can be achieved for this progressive club.
Sterritt has described this club as a “sleeping giant,” and with good reason. Whether or not they achieve their ultimate goal of promotion to the Amateur League Premier Division may well rest on success outside of Division 1A, and one of those avenues will be re-opened to Rathfriland this weekend.
A Border Cup third round tie against fellow 1A side East Belfast represents the perfect test of both sides’ credentials in an ever-competitive league, and the winners will not only secure a place in the quarter-finals, but also a psychological blow over their rivals.
Even though he turned down the advances of two Championship-level clubs to take up this role, you get the impression Sterritt has no regrets whatsoever about the decision he made.
He added: “It is a real sleeping giant. And a real family club. There are great people working hard for this club, and it has been a personal pleasure to help turn things around here.
“When I look on those last few months of last season, it’s probably the best time I have had in football so far. To see where the club was, and to keep them in a very strong league… that was pretty special.”
And the good news for Rathfriland supporters is, they’ve only just begun.