Belfast Telegraph

McConaghie hoping Cup glory will be the icing on his cake

 

By Graham Luney

Gareth McConaghie will celebrate his 30th birthday tomorrow, but there is little time to blow out the candles on the cake, kick back and relax.

Not when you have the job of keeping Joe Gormley and Rory Donnelly quiet in an Irish Cup final.

The dynamic duo are arguably the most feared strikeforce in domestic football and they will need to be stifled if Coleraine want to win the glittering prize for the first time since 2003.

But if any defence can frustrate the Solitude heroes it's centre-back McConaghie and his rearguard pals who boasted the best defensive record in a Danske Bank Premiership campaign that almost sparked title celebrations for the first time since 1974 - the club's only top-flight success.

Boss Oran Kearney worked with the former Lisburn Distillery man when he was at Limavady United, and his signing in the summer of 2016 was another inspired purchase from the Coleraine chief.

The man who moved to the Showgrounds from Coleraine & District League side Dervock won the BetMcLean Player of the Month award for January and has been a rock at the back for the Bannsiders this season.

Now a player who dropped out of senior football for a year has the opportunity to win an Irish Cup with Coleraine, and he's ready to go toe-to-toe with Cliftonville's dangermen to live his dream.

"You always expect a busy afternoon when you come up against Cliftonville," said McConaghie.

"They are a good side with great attacking threat, we have to make sure we keep them as quiet as possible. But we are looking forward to the challenge.

"It's my birthday on Saturday, but it's put on hold until after the game. If I wasn't playing in the final I probably wouldn't be up to very much now that I've a couple of young kids.

"This year, though, I'm lucky enough to be playing in an Irish Cup final, not many people get the opportunity to do that on their birthday.

"It will be another incentive for me to push on and bring home the Cup."

Coleraine's thirst to win silverware has never been greater, especially after their title dream was extinguished by Crusaders last weekend.

Last season's Irish Cup final loss to Linfield is another huge motivating factor for the Bannsiders, but McConaghie knows the fans will roar them onto the result they cherish.

"I think it helps to know the support is there throughout Coleraine and the wider area," he said.

"The players definitely feed off it. Maybe if you're not having the best of games they are there to pick you up as the 12th man.

"The support we have received has been great this year, and hopefully we can repay them on Saturday.

"Last season there was a lot of hype because it was our first final in a while.

"When we got to the ground there was an unbelievable atmosphere, and personally I wasn't used to that.

"So it was a big learning curve for me and I'm sure a lot of the other guys too, I think we'll take that experience into Saturday and hopefully capitalise on it. As soon as the final whistle went, it was put to bed for me.

"I only watched it back about four weeks ago and it wasn't pretty watching.

"We certainly don't want to repeat that this year again."

A brutal and exhausting 38-game league season came to an end last weekend and, even though Coleraine suffered only one defeat, they had to watch Crusaders lift the Gibson Cup.

It could be argued that both sides deserved to win the prize but Coleraine accept there is little room for sentiment in this game. The footballing gods could once again kick them when they are down at Windsor Park tomorrow.

Kearney was quick to remind his men that nothing is handed to you on a plate and one more massive effort is required to unlock the trophy cabinet.

There is little time for the players to nurse their league wounds, but the question must hang in the air - are they physically and mentally ready for one of the biggest games of their lives?

Just how much gas have the players got left in the tank against what should be a fit and fresh Cliftonville side?

All will be revealed at 2.30pm tomorrow.

McConaghie added: "It hasn't been that difficult this week because the Irish Cup final is a great occasion.

"Not many get the opportunity to play in a final never mind two in a row.

"Saturday was disappointing, but it's great we can bounce back this Saturday with a final, and we have the chance to set the record straight from last year."

Meanwhile, Coleraine goalkeeper Chris Johns goes into the decider lifted by the news he's won the BetMcLean Player of the Month award for April from the Northern Ireland Football Writers Association.

Johns kept two clean sheets in the month, helping the Bannsiders to a second-placed finish in the Premiership.

He said: "I'd like to thank both the football writers and their sponsors BetMcLean for this award. It's a great honour.

"Obviously it was disappointing not to win the league, but we've already moved on from that and now our full focus is on the Irish Cup final.

"We are determined to win, particularly after losing to Linfield in last season's final. Everybody is ready to go. It's a big occasion and we're confident in our ability."

Crusaders full-back Billy Joe Burns was runner-up with Dungannon Swifts striker Daniel Hughes in third.

Cliftonville vs Coleraine

Tennent's Irish Cup Final

Windsor Park, Tomorrow, 2.30pm

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