Who will reach the Junior Shield showdown?
There can be no disputing that Harryville Homers are the out-and-out-favourites to win this year’s County Antrim Junior Shield. In fact, they may well be disappointed with themselves if they don’t finish the season with a remarkable Junior Shield and Junior Cup double.
The Ballymena club’s quest to become the first to complete the special feat since Immaculata in 2009, and the third since Cromac Albion back in 1972 (Newcastle & District League side Maghera won it in 1987), continues apace this week, starting with the short trip to the Ballymena Showgrounds, where they’ll face Carniny Rangers in the semi-final of the Junior Cup tonight (Monday, 7.45pm), followed by their Junior Shield last-four clash against Lower Shankill at Spafield Playing Fields, Holywood on Thursday night (7.45pm).
Many clubs hold the Junior Cup as the ultimate competition to win, and understandably so, as it encompasses the whole of Northern Ireland, however as a side who are well accustomed to picking up silverware on a season-on-season basis, it would carry added significance to lift a trophy they haven’t as yet been able to get their hands on.
It’s a widely-held view that Northern Amateur Football League teams are a strong barometer for any other junior side outside of that set-up, and Lower Shankill are likely to provide their opponents with a stiff test and are in an excellent position, with games in hand to put in a make a genuine challenge for the Division 2C title.
They have also made light work of their progress to this stage of the tournament, having won by over three goals in every round up to the final, and the rolling their sleeves up when required to dispose of Ballybogey in a tight 1-0 quarter-final.
However, the Homers have regularly shown their quality against NAFL opposition, including in this year’s Junior Shield, with a 4-2 triumph over current 2C leaders Ballysillan Swifts in round one, an eye-catching 7-1 victory at 2A trailblazers Tullycarnet in round three, not to mention an equally comprehensive 4-0 win over fellow 2A contenders St Luke’s in the fifth round. A 2-1 quarter-final victory over a Greenisland side looking strong favourites to be promoted to next year’s 2A completes the case for the Homers versus NAFL opposition.
Ballyvea take on Newington YC II in the first of the two Junior Shield semis, tomorrow night (Tuesday, 7.30pm), also at Spafield Playing Fields. And while there is always a level of intrigue around how any NIFL Championship club's second string will fare - and indeed, which one will turn up - it will be just as interesting to see if Ballyvea have what it takes to make it to the final.
Like Harryville, the Kilkeel men were firing on both fronts - the Junior Cup and Junior Shield - but were pipped in the Junior Cup quarters by St Luke’s after extra time. With that narrow defeat in mind, they are likely to be even more determined to win tomorrow night’s game, and if their thumping 7-0 and 8-1 wins over Glenpark and Ballymacash YM in earlier rounds of this competition are anything to go by, Newington will have to be at their best.
A 4-1 victory away to Immaculata II - a club whose strength in depth has to be respected - in round two will also have had managers sitting up to take notice.
Meanwhile, Newington’s second string have been faring well in the Ballymena & Provincial League’s Junior Division 1 - or at least, they have, in the games that they have played so far.
Reaching the third round stage of the Junior Cup, the semi-finals of the Crawford Cup and continuing progress in the Canada Cup sees them in fourth position, but with seven games in hand over the teams around them, they will be hopeful of a strong finish to the season.
For a team whose victories have included a 6-0 fourth round win over Ards Rangers II, could that strong finish conclude with the Junior Shield itself? Time will tell.