Most football managers have a have a fair idea of where they place cup competitions in the greater scheme of their priorities, but when it comes to Newcastle player-manager Ciaran Brannigan and this year’s Irish Cup, it isn’t so straightforward.
On the one hand, progress will add to the number of fixtures his team have to tackle in a season when they would ideally like to put together a challenge for the Division 1B title. On the other, there is no getting away from a the boost a run in the competition would give to team morale as the season unfolds.
But perish the idea of meeting one of the NIFL Premiership sides in the latter stages. That may be a money-spinning incentive for many of the amateur clubs who manage to plot their way through the competition, but as far as Brannigan is concerned, Newcastle are not one of them.
Having seen his side exit the Steel & Sons Cup with a 7-1 first round defeat against Amateur League Premier Division outfit Crumlin Star, he doesn’t want to see his players subjected to a similar thumping again.
Brannigan remarked: “For us, there is no big thing about getting to the fifth round of the Irish Cup to draw one of the ‘big guns.’ Everyone at Newcastle pays their way, we don’t have our own clubhouse, and the pitch pays for itself, so we don’t have any outgoings.
“Getting hammered by one of a Premiership side is no boost to me or to the club, so it is isn’t a competition that we really fancy ourselves in.”
But here’s the thing. A number of factors in this year’s Irish Cup have conspired to motivate Brannigan and his players, not to mention the fact that their chances of any cup run this season are already beginning to dwindle rapidly.
The Newcastle manager explained: “I probably wouldn’t have put out as strong a side for our first round game against Ballynahinch Olympic, but they beat us in the league the week before, and I wanted us to turn the tide.
“The Border Cup is one of the competitions we were looking to progress in this year, but we have Immaculata in the next round, and they have to be one of the favourites to win it. The fact that it’s at their place makes it all the more difficult.
“I have to be honest looking at it, and say that between the Immaculata game and our Irish Cup second round game against Dromara Village, Dromara is the one we are more likely to win. We are more than capable of beating them.”
The Villagers may be in the division above Newcastle, but they have had a difficult start to their league campaign, failing to register a point in their first four 1A games.
As for Newcastle’s league form, they have six points from four games to date, and while the likes of Ballynahinch and Wellington Rec may have stolen an early march, Brannigan is determined to maintain a cup presence whilst he waits on players returning to the fold.
He added: “Last year we got off to a flier - we went the first six games without getting beaten - and I felt our squad was good enough enough, but we were overtaken later in the season, when the games in hand maybe didn’t mean as much to teams that were involved in matches against our rivals.”
So it would appear that past experience has suggested to Brannigan that a backlog of fixtures towards the tail end of the season isn’t always the worst case scenario, especially for a team that has such a strong reliance on players who juggle the close of the Gaelic football season with the opening of the Amateur League season.
Speaking of which, with the Bryansford side Brannigan and a handful of his team-mates play for now out of the Down Senior Championship, they will be available at an earlier stage than they were last season - giving the top-scoring Newcastle boss an opportunity to try and better the 31 goals he netted in 2014/15... sobering news for the rest of 1B.