It’s a sign of just how far Immaculata have come that immediately after booking their place in the fifth round of the Irish Cup with a 2-0 win over Dundela on Saturday, their manager was already thinking ahead to round six.
Usually, when an Amateur League club makes it to the fifth round of local football’s premier knockout cup competition, it is considered to be an achievement. It is the stage, at the start of January each year, when the Northern Ireland Football League’s ‘big guns’ enter the competition, and teams below the NIFL begin to dream of drawing a Crusaders, Cliftonville, Linfield or a Glentoran.
Not Kevin Lawlor, however - and neither, you suspect, his players. For the Mac have become accustomed to this rarefied company, having qualified for the fifth round on two previous occasions since their promotion to the intermediate ranks of the Amateur League just five seasons ago.
Lawlor wasn’t completely satisfied with a comprehensive display against their NIFL Championship Two hosts on Saturday, he bemoaned that the scoresheet didn’t fully reflect that dominance, and set his sights on a first ever sixth round place.
"No, I wasn’t satisfied, but then I’m never satisfied, said Lawlor afterwards. We were excellent today, especially in the first half – I thought we could have come off more than 2-0 up at half time.
"Our away form hasn’t been great, but we had a couple of boys back in the squad today, which helped us, and hopefully today was a stepping stone for us.
"The league is always the main thing, but being in this competition gives us a lift. We’re not interested in any ‘glamour ties’ just yet, so hopefully we can get a good home draw that can give us a good chance of getting into the next round."
If there was any disadvantage in the Grosvenor Road side playing away from home at the weekend, then it wasn’t immediately apparent – especially not after they took the lead within the first two minutes.
Lee Lenaghan’s foul on Padraig Adams approaching the penalty area gave Daniel Largey the opportunity to float in a well-weighted free kick, which John Boyce headed in with ease.
Boyce and Adams looked a dangerous partnership from the off, and the former provided a neat lay-off to the latter a few minutes later, but Adams effort went wide. In the 10th minute, Adams fired the ball across the box, but no-one was able to get a critical finishing touch.
Immaculata were controlling the play impressively, making it difficult for Dundela to get the ball, and when possession was lost, they worked hard to win it back again. The Duns, on the other hand, were find chances hard to come by.
Mark McLelland was unable to prevent Lee Lenaghan’s 14th minute free kick from crossing the by-line, while Scott Dornan had the sting taken out of his shot by Sean McGovern, who was able to get a foot in its path.
Billy McGovern showed great ingenuity with a burst down the right, but Boyce was only able to get the faintest of touches to his eventual cross, leaving his side still only a goal to the good.
Dundela could have drawn level in the 35th minute, when Scott Dornan got onto the end of a long-ball from deep, poking an effort goalwards, only to be denied by the alert Gerard Smith.
This spurned opportunity was to be rued by the Duns, as five minutes later, Lenaghan miss-cleared to Adams, who rattled a low drive under the diving James Taylor.
The Wilgar Park men did have a chance to pull one back before the break, but Ethan Knipe could only find the side-net, as he followed up from Dornan’s earlier saved attempt.
The Duns’ management looked to change things at half time, as Michael Edgar came on for Dornan, and when Matthew Kerr’s curling free kick was denied only by a top class save from Smith, it looked as though the home side still had plenty to offer this cup tie.
However, that impression began to dissipate when, less than 10 minutes from his introduction into the game, substitute Edgar’s challenge on Adams earned him a straight red from referee Graham McIlwrath.
From the ensuing free kick, Sean McGovern struck low, and it was parried away only as far as Adrian Oliver who hit the side-netting on the rebound.
Dundela did show some indication that they could get themselves back into the tie, but a 64th minute one-on-one between Adam Neale and Smith in which the keeper came out on top, and a dangerous whipped cross from Scott Collins which narrowly missed the head of Neale, were the best they could muster.
It all left new Dundela boss David Murphy – who, together with captain Stephen Gourley, have taken over first team affairs in the wake of former manager Darren Lockhart’s resignation last week – rather disappointed.
He said: "I was impressed with Immaculata’s commitment, desire and hunger – things we were a bit lacking in today. It’s a cup final for any team coming here, and I think you can hear that by their celebrations in the dressing room.
"The job we have here is a big one – we are under no illusions about that. But we have confidence in our ability to do it, and with January coming up, we are feeling positive about what the future can bring us.
"The league is our bread and butter, and if we can pick up another three points before Christmas, we’ll be happy.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Neil Slawe (Immaculata). Really caught the eye in an outstanding overall team performance.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH: Liam Boyce set the tone for Immaculata with his second minute headed goal.
SAVE OF THE MATCH: Gerard Smith’s save from a one-on-one with Adam Neale in the 64th minute was one of several superb saves from the Immaculata keeper.
BLOOPER OF THE MATCH: Michael Edgar’s sending off after less than 10 minutes on the field came at a time when Dundela appeared to be growing into the game.
James Taylor: Did well to keep the score down. 6
Owen Thompson: Out-battled more than once. 5
Scott Collins: Showed some promise from dead ball situations. 7
Lee Lenaghan: Struggled at times. 6
Mark McLelland: Gave the Mac defence something to think about. 7
Stephen Gourley: Cut a frustrated figure. 6
Ethan Knipe: Played through the pain barrier. 6
Jordan West: Endured a difficult first half. 5
Adam Neale: Did his best to find a way through. 7
Scott Dornan: One of Dundela’s livelier performances. 7
Matthew Kerr: Supplied a few decent passes. 6
Matthew Burrows: On for Kerr, 80
Stephen Shaw: On for Knipe, 64
Michael Edgar: On for Dornan, 45
Ryan Bickerstaff: Not used
Johnny Sargeant: Not used
Gerard Smith: Tremendous showing, the main reason for the Mac’s clean sheet. 9
Daniel Largey: Outstanding tackling all afternoon. 8
Michael Fisher: Provided good width down the left. 7
Billy McGovern: Good at turning defence into attack. 8
Sean McGovern: Little got past him. 8
Colm O’Riordan: A classy performance. 8
Tony Heagney: An energetic display. 7
Neil Slawe: Full of invention and flair. 9
Padraig Adams: Carried great attacking threat. 8
John Boyce: Kept the Dundela defence on their toes. 8
Adrian Oliver: Full-blooded in every challenge. 7
Joseph McClenaghan: On for Boyce, 84
Colm Carson: On for Fisher, 31
Nicky Beta: Not used