Simpson targets Craig Memorial glory over Limavady in Ardstraw's first final
Former Newbuildings manager Gary Simpson has turned little Ardstraw into a force to be reckoned with.
The Co Tyrone club are looking forward to two festive cup finals this holiday period. On Boxing Day, they face Championship Two side Limavady United in the Craig Memorial Cup (Fortwilliam Park, Tobermore, 11.30am) while on Saturday, January 3, they will take on Trojans in the NI Intermediate League Cup final.
Simpson said: “The club was formed in 1972 and by all accounts, they've never won a cup final before, so to reach two cup finals in such a short period of time is an incredible achievement. We know we're up against it against Limavady in the Craig Memorial but we've also got Trojans in the Intermediate League Cup final, so it's a new experience for the club and everyone is very excited.
“This is a hard-working club who have a great set-up with floodlights and a great pitch. The committee really deserve this sort of success.”
Simpson made his name with Newbuildings, famously guiding them to the North-West Senior Cup last season. However, he surprisingly left the Londonderry club in December last year.
Simpson explained: “There was only a few weeks between leaving Newbuildings and taking over at Ardstraw. I left Newbuildings in December and started at Ardstraw in late January. I thought I'd have to rebuild things but I've only had to bring in two new players.
“The first thing I noticed when I arrived at the club is that the players weren't fit. We held a mini pre-season in February and the results improved almost immediately. I was surprised by how much ability the players had. They've been superb and they deserve all the credit for reaching these cup finals.”
As someone who has both played and managed in the NI Intermediate League, Simpson says the division is underrated. He believes the league is just as good as the Amateur League Premier Division or the Mid Ulster League Intermediate A.
“Our league doesn't get a lot of coverage but I think it's a very strong, competitive division. I'd rate it as highly as any regional league in the country. I know a few Championship Two clubs have considered joining.
“Trojans have just joined our league while Oxford United Stars have been a league team in the past. Then you've Newbuildings and Strabane who have both had good Irish Cup runs in the past. I think the fact there is only seven teams hurts the league's creditability but those seven teams are all strong sides.”
On Boxing Day, Ardstraw face Limavady United at Fortwilliam Park in Tobermore. United are currently in the top half of Championship Two, after suffering relegation from Championship One last season.
Simpson accepts that Limavady are favourites to lift the Craig Memorial Cup.
“I know their manager Neil Mullan well, as we've played against each other many times. He's a good guy who deserves a lot of credit for turning Limavady around. This time last year they were really struggling at the bottom of Championship One, but I know they're going well in Championship Two and I'm sure they will be in the running for promotion.
“I went to watch them play last month and I was very impressed. They played some really good stuff.
“We're under no illusions, we appreciate they're strong favourites to win the cup final, but we believe in ourselves, and I feel if we stick to our game plan, then we will have a good chance of winning.”
This is Ardstraw's first final, while Limavady will be hoping to lift their seventh Craig Memorial Cup title.
Belfast Telegraph Digital