Belfast Telegraph

Irish League hopefuls want a party in the Port after promotion play-off

By Gareth Hanna

They've won five trophies between them this season but after all their hard work, only one of these two clubs will end the season in true party style.

Mid-Ulster champions Dollingstown meet NI Intermediate League winners Portstewart in the promotion play-off first leg at Planters Park on Saturday before the second leg on the north coast a week later.

As Portstewart manager Gary Taylor recognised, both teams will feel deserving of a place in the third tier of Northern Irish football - and both have shown they are well capable.

Taylor's treble-winning Portstewart have lost only four games all season. Three of those were to teams from the Irish League's top three divisions and the other, rather unfortunately, on the day they picked up the league trophy (although Taylor reckons his lads probably "had their minds on the party afterwards.")

Dollingstown have been no strangers to a celebration themselves this season, winning both the Mid-Ulster Football League's Intermediate A crown and the Bob Radcliffe Cup - a success their manager Stephen Uprichard admits was a bit of a shock, considering the higher ranked teams involved.

But there can only be one side celebrating after this thrilling climax to the intermediate season, and Taylor is desperate to make sure it's his Seahawks.

"Winning three trophies was the icing on the cake but now we want the cherry on top as well," he said.

"To be honest, these are the main two matches for us. Our aim at the start of the season was to get back into the Irish League and that hasn't changed.

"We've been playing well and we think we deserve to be promoted but I'm sure Dollingstown are feeling like that as well.

"It was tough with so many teams getting relegated out of the Irish League last season but it's no coincidence that both ourselves and Dollingstown have won the league this following year. We've kept all of our players together with the promise that we would have a good go at getting back there again."

For footballers in the fourth tier of the Northern Irish pyramid, seasons don't normally last quite this long. And that has brought its own issues as Dollingstown manager Uprichard points out.

He explained: "Nobody envisaged the season going on this long and the guys have lives to live. They've made plans with families and girlfriends and whatever way the play-off goes, we'll be back in at the end of June or start of July so they only really get a month off. It's a big commitment.

"The guys have been really, really good all season. Our league has been competitive and to win it was very, very pleasing. The lads have kept their feet on the ground, worked hard and got a lot of consistency.

"Then to win the Bob Radcliffe was fantastic. I don't think anybody would have given a Mid-Ulster team a chance with the standard of teams that were involved.

"Now it's a case of performing in these two games and finishing it off.

"Portstewart are strong at the back and capable of scoring goals. I've done my homework on them and I'm sure they've done the same on us. One person's exact words to me were 'you're up against it' so we know they have a lot of quality."

There is plenty of that in both squads. Portstewart's Ryan Doherty showed his skill in his side's Irish Cup fifth round defeat at Glenavon and the former Coleraine winger will again be a key cog if his side are to be the ones popping the corks next Saturday afternoon.

"We think Ryan can play a lot higher than the Intermediate League," reiterated Taylor. "We want to get young players in and get them a move up the divisions. When other players see that, it lets them see that they can take a step down, play football and progress and then move back up again."

For Dollingstown, ex Lurgan Celtic forward Ritchie Thompson and former Annagh United man Scott McCordick provide their danger in attack while captain Aaron Moffett shores up the back line.

Kick-off at Planters Park is at 3pm on Saturday afternoon, when both sides will keen to put that finishing touch on what has been a celebration-filled season for both the Dollybirds and the Seahawks.

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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