Belfast Celtic keen to push players on to new heights, says Stephen McAlorum
While Belfast Celtic's ultimate dream of rising through the NI Football League might not be realised for a while yet, the manager is keen for some of his squad to get a head start.
Striker Matthew Fitzpatrick has already agreed to join Premiership high-flyers Coleraine in January and, should his team-mates use their day in the Irish Cup spotlight to earn a move of their own, Stephen McAlorum is fine with that.
The former Glentoran midfielder took an unexpected step into management over the summer and has successfully guided his new-look team to the Irish Cup fifth round, where they have been rewarded with a trip to top-tier Larne.
It was all change for the club over the summer. New name, switching from Sport & Leisure Swifts, new manager and a new squad.
McAlorum started from scratch, assembling a fresh group of players, with a focus on bringing local west Belfast players to Glen Road Heights.
The boss began by adding a group of former Premiership players to his panel, including former Glentoran defender Mark Clarke, ex-Glenavon skipper Brendan Shannon, former Warrenpoint man Josh Lynch and Daniel Hanna who played for Donegal Celtic in the Premiership.
Add to that Championship veteran forward Gary Warwick and former Larne favourite Darren Stuart and you get a squad packed with experience.
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"There are quite a few guys there that are very good," McAlorum admitted. "I'm a firm believer that every single one of our players could play at a far higher level."
Former Antrim GAA player Fitzpatrick is going on to do just that. He will be a Coleraine player by the time the fifth round arrives on January 4.
"You're always sad to lose your best players but I've told all the boys that if a bigger club comes in, they can go with my blessing," explained McAlorum of his club's philosophy.
"If players are doing well, that means the team's doing well and we'll let them go.
"I've been about the Irish League long enough. I know what it takes to get to that league and what type of player can get there. If you come in with a prima dona attitude, you'll get nowhere but if you come in and work hard, we can get you somewhere."
The hope is that other players will see the progress and opt to join.
"It's helping us and it's helping them too," concludes McAlorum.
He knows, however, that Belfast Celtic itself hasn't got a shortcut to the top.
"It's going to take time for this club to develop and get to where we want to be but we're on the right road," he said.
"Everthing's going to go at a slow pace and we're going to do things right. If it takes five years to get out of our league, it takes five years. There's nobody under any pressure here."
Celtic are sixth in the Ballymena and Provincial League, eight points off second-placed St James Swifts having played three games less.
That's after reaching the Steel and Sons Cup semi-final, where they were eventually beaten by Newington on penalties, and the Irish Cup run that has seen victories over Premier Intermediate League sides Portstewart and Annagh United as well as last year's quarter-finalists Larne Tech OB.
While his pedigree as a cup manager looks good so far, McAlorum admits that defeating top-tier Larne may prove a bridge too far.
"You never know but it would be a massive shock," he said. "It would be like Glentoran getting beaten by Newington (in the 2012 fifth round). You don't see it very often. We'll see how we go.
"It's an opportunity for our boys to show how good they actually are. We're very similar to Larne football-wise. We get the ball down and try to play it and we work hard off the ball.
"I'm very close with their manager Tiernan (Lynch). We won two Irish Cups together when we were at Glentoran and he's a very good friend. I don't think he ever thought he would see me in the management side of things."
He's not the only one.
Even McAlorum himself wasn't planning on moving into the dugout until former Celtic chief Packie McAllister called for his help in January. One thing led to another and the former midfielder finds himself in charge.
"You have to have a lot of patience, which I never had as a player," he concedes, mulling over his new role. "You just have to take a wee step back and bite your tongue a little bit. It's a learning curve. It might take me a long time to learn but I'm enjoying it at the minute and long may it continue."
January 4 sees another day that all at the will savour.
The hope is that trips to Premiership clubs will become a regular occurrence, no matter how long it takes.
Belfast Telegraph Digital