Belfast Telegraph

Ards are given the Blues

Shields has a wish this Christmas

By Martin Mawhinney

There may still be 90 days until Christmas Day, but it's an occasion not far from the minds of many at this time of year... and Linfield Swifts manager Dennis Shields is happy to admit he's one of them.

The Windsor Park reserve team boss has enjoyed vast success during his 12 years in charge, in terms of silverware, and more importantly to him, the players he has brought through the system.

Yet one trophy eludes him. The Steel & Sons Cup has not only become a 'Holy Grail' to him at the Swifts, but the whole experience of the Christmas morning final is something he feels his players have missed out on.

On Saturday, the Swifts took a major step towards this year's showpiece with a penalty shootout win over Ards in the fourth round.

The result leaves them just two matches away from a place in the final, and Shields (pictured) has his fingers tightly crossed they can make it this time.

He said: "We have lost all three semi-finals we have been in, but never reached the final. It is something that rankles with me.

"The thing is, I know what it's like to win it - I was there twice as a coach with Ballyclare Comrades in the eighties, and we won it twice.

"I have experienced it, the elation and the feeling of what it's like to win it - that's why I would love to be there with the Swifts. It's not a selfish thing... I would love to get there for the players, especially the younger ones.

"It is one of the classic Northern Ireland cup finals in terms of atmosphere. Other than the Big Two or the Irish Cup final, it has probably the biggest attendance of the season."

Although Saturday's match would have left Swifts followers with short fingernails at times, it was the manner in which they won it which particularly pleased their manager.

Shields admitted he thought the tie was won when Ross Clarke put the reserve outfit 1-0 up with a goal in the 75th minute, but Ards striker Nathan McConnell levelled the scores in the fifth minute of injury time.

No further goals in extra time meant the game went to penalties, and with Brian McCaul, Billy Joe Burns, Gary Brow, and Stephen Cockroft all tucking theirs away, and Ross Arthurs missing for Ards, the game was won when Stuart Addis saved from McConnell.

The Swifts boss continued: "I don't know where the referee got the added time from, but it was up to us to get on with it, and I was delighted with how we responded.

"I felt we had most of the play, and deserved the result... the spirit they showed was tremendous."

With first team players making up a large part of the Swifts line-up at the weekend, it appears the reserves are benefiting from the knock-on effect of a healthy Linfield squad.

Stuart Addis, BJ Burns, Kris Lindsay, Brian McCaul, Marcus Kane and Gary Browne all featured on Saturday, although the performances of Matty King, Stephen Gordon, Ross Clarke, Chris Black, and Stephen Cockroft gave Shields encouragement.

"It's always good to see the young lads doing well, and I like to give them a chance.

"Having said that, the times when the Swifts have won the Steel Cup in the past have mostly been with a senior team. The beauty of having such a strong first team is that it gives me more to select from, and if I can bring some of the young players on too, all the better."

With such an array of talent at his disposal, there are some who would suggest this is the best opportunity Shields has had to book a place in the final with the Swifts.

But you won't hear Shields make such claims. Not because of a lack of belief in his players... it just isn't his style.

He said: "I see myself as more of a coach than anything. It's hard enough making team selections, without making predictions and talking players up.

"The last thing I want to do is blow my own trumpet, and that goes for my players too. I find all that embarrassing.

"They know themselves what they are capable of."

And the Swifts boss is equally wary when it comes to discussing which team he would like to draw in the quarter finals.

He said: "I don't worry too much about who we get. When managers pick out who they want to play, it shows they are fearful of other teams.

"I thought we had drawn one of the shorter straws with Ards, but my attitude was that they wouldn't want to face us either. We put them out of the Intermediate Cup last year, and I knew they'd want to get one up on us."

The Swifts know that they will meet one of four Championship or three Amateur League sides in the last eight.

Ards' North Down rivals Bangor scraped through 1-0 against Crusaders Reserves after extra time (see Match of the Day, pages eight and nine), while Larne beat Orangefield OB 3-1, Glebe Rangers defeated Killyleagh YC 4-1, and Knockbreda edged out 4-3 winners over a spirited Malachians.

Not everyone read the script, however, and Dunmurry Rec sprung the upset of the round with a 4-1 away victory over Ballyclare Comrades.

And Shankill United overcame their Amateur League Premier Division rivals Islandmagee in a 4-3 thriller.

The outstanding fixture between Immaculata and Ardglass - postponed, due to The Mac's involvement in the Irish Cup on Saturday - will take place this weekend.

Belfast Telegraph

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