St Paul's focused on silverware ahead of Junior Shield semi-final
St Paul’s have already made plenty of headlines this season, but manager Micky Kelly believes it will all have been in vain unless they have the silverware to show for it.
They go into Wednesday night’s County Antrim Junior Shield semi-final against Ballykeel (Inver Park, Larne, 7.30pm) with the undeniable favourites’ tag, having toppled the Junior Cup winners of the past two years, Strathroy Harps, in that competition, only to be knocked out by Windmill Stars in the quarter-final.
Now with one major cup competition out of reach, Kelly insists it is imperative for his boys to reach the final, but won’t let his mind wander too far into the future.
He said: “We can’t be complacent… we just have to concentrate on the game in front of us.
“It was really disheartening, the way we went out of the Junior Cup, but we have learnt from the experience. It has been a real achievement for the boys to get that far, in a lot of cases, in their first season.
“I have them thinking that with the right attitude, they have the quality and the fitness to win it. They just need to show the consistency.”
One major boost for Kelly going into this crucial tie is the ability shown by his team to claw their way back from behind. Against Shamrock in the quarter-final of the Nelson Cup, they were down to 10 men and a goal down after 10 minutes, and won 4-2.
Equally impressive this season have been their turnarounds against Ballysillan YM (winning 5-3 from 3-0 down) and St James Swifts (another 5-3 victory, this time from 3-1 behind) – both of which support the view that this is a team who never know they are beaten.
Beyond this season, the Belfast & District club are one of a growing number with sights set on joining the Northern Amateur Football League. Yet, if pushed for a choice, Kelly admits that as eager as he is to join Northern Ireland’s top grassroots football teams, he would pick a Junior Shield win this season over an NAFL place every time.
He said: “We have got the forms out and will be applying to the Amateur League. Hopefully both happen, but the boys don’t get anything, as such, for getting up into the Amateur League. What we really want is a piece of silverware to show for our efforts.”
Ballykeel manager Martin Etherson is just as keen as his opposite number to land the main prize, and while he accepts his side may not be one of the more fancied candidates to do so, that isn’t something likely to cause him or his players any loss of sleep.
The former Ballymena United and Chimney Corner coach told The Park: “Obviously St Paul’s are a very good outfit, as they have been fighting on two or three fronts. But it’s football, and Wigan have showed in the FA Cup that with the right attitude, belief and a rub of the green, you can do anything.
“You have to look at them and look at us. They put Strathroy Harps out of the Junior Cup, and we were playing Second Division football in the Ballymena Saturday Morning League last year.
“But the progression of the players in that time has been fantastic. Sometimes it can be hard to get players disciplined in their positions – everyone wants to be a Messi or Ronaldo these days – but these boys are working together within a framework.
“They are listening, and they are showing a desire and hunger that I just can’t fault.”
Ballykeel are more than capable of fulfilling their aim of a top six finish in this, their first season in Division One, but it is on the major stage of the Junior Shield where they have been truly able to showcase their potential.
Fellow Division One sides Harryville Homers and Carniny Rangers once again made steady progress in this season’s Junior Cup with the Homers still on course to reach their second final in as many years.
And Etherson insists this it is no coincidence that Ballymena teams are doing so well in Northern Ireland’s blue ribbon competitions.
He added: “Ballymena is a massive football town with a lot of good players, and there are two men in particular who deserve a lot of credit for what they have been doing.
“The guys who run the league, Brian Montgomery and Davy King, put in an incredible amount of groundwork, and that is bearing fruit.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital