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'Now I want a medal': Coleraine striker James McLaughlin determined to see off former side Ballymena and take his chance at Irish Cup glory

 

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James McLaughlin has scored 12 goals this season, 56 in all for Coleraine.

James McLaughlin has scored 12 goals this season, 56 in all for Coleraine.

©INPHO/Brian Little

James McLaughlin has scored 12 goals this season, 56 in all for Coleraine.

If there was a season for a Coleraine player to miss through injury, the 17/18 campaign wasn't ideal.

The Bannsiders lifted the Irish Cup for the sixth time in the club's history and finished as runners-up in the league table, losing out to Crusaders on an exciting final day.

Striker James McLaughlin didn't play a minute in either competition, having suffered a cruciate ligament injury in pre-season.

Fast forward two years and, with his hopes of providing the extra spark required in another tight title tussle scuppered by the coronavirus pandemic, he's determined to have his day in the sun in next week's Irish Cup as the Bannsiders face rivals Ballymena United on Monday for a chance to play Glentoran or Cliftonville in Friday's final.

He's not the only one either. Both Lyndon Kane and Josh Carson also missed the 2018 victory over Cliftonville through injuries picked up just weeks before the decider.

“We have a lot of boys still in the changing room that won the Irish Cup that year but the three of us who missed out have that driving hunger that we want one as well," McLaughlin said.

"The majority of our squad was there and played that day but the rest of us want one now.

"That’s driving us on and obviously the rest of the guys, once you win one, you always want another one."

McLaughlin started and scored in February's League Cup final win over Crusaders but there's little doubt an Irish Cup success would mark the pinnacle of a rather unconventional career path.

Having left Linfield, where he played as a junior, the born-and-bred Coleraine man joined Ballymena in 2009, thanks to a mutual friend with United physio Gordon McCartney. After just eight substitute appearances in the Premiership, his brief top tier career seemed over soon after his 20th birthday.

"I just wanted to play football," he explains, which he went on to do at lower-league sides Portstewart, Limavady United and Ballybogey.

“It was then that I started to enjoy the sport again. All I wanted to do at that age was play."

Then in 2015, a return to the top flight beckoned with his hometown club. Scoring 20 goals in his first season with the Bannsiders, it's fair to say he hit the ground running.

"There was more of a hunger there by that stage," he explains. "I wanted to do well. When I was at Ballymena I was still young and probably a bit stupid at times. I didn’t see where it could go but when I came to Coleraine, I realised that I could make something of it.”

Two seasons hitting double figures in the Premiership made his the club's top marksman before the injury nightmare that coincided with the 2018 Irish Cup success.

“It was easy to watch the boys enjoying it but it was hard as well knowing that I was missing out," he recalls.

“Once I got back into training after a couple of sessions, everything was back to normal. There was no fear of the injury stopping me from doing what I wanted to do.

“Whenever it first happened, the physio told me there would come a day where I forgot about it and I’d be totally back to normal. It felt like such a long way away when he said it and sort of unreal but it was right.

“When I came back then people would ask me about my knee and I’d be thinking ‘what do you mean?’ I just forgot about it altogether."

It's fitting that McLaughlin, now 30, goes into the closing stages of this year's Irish Cup finally back in tip-top condition and, from before lockdown, on a run of three goals from his last five games.

"I’m back to the way I felt that first season I came in to Coleraine," he said.

“I feel sharper and like I’ve really got my eye in again. Like anybody who has been out, I just needed game-time. That’s what gives you that sharpness again and you can’t replicate it anywhere else.

“I've been busy in the gym the past eight weeks so if anything I'm fitter than I was before the break."

And of course, there's nobody better to be going up against straight off than the old enemy and the club that let him go.

“There is a part of that still involved in it for me," he said of a determination to prove Ballymena wrong.

“But more than that it’s just that I grew up in Coleraine and this is all I know. There always was that even standing at the other side of the wall watching when I was younger. You always wanted it and there’s definitely a little bit extra in it for me.

“How do you sum something like the derby up? It’s a battle. There’s nothing else like it. It’s just an absolute battle from start to finish for 90 minutes, that’s probably the only way I can explain it."

Monday's meeting should have been a packed house with thousands of supporters playing their part.

It's lost something without them, McLaughlin admits that, but if he can finally get his hands on an Irish Cup medal, it'll be just as sweet at the end of a winding road.

Belfast Telegraph