Lisbellaw United manager James McGrath is hopeful it can be third time lucky at Lakeview Park when they take on Windmill Stars in the Junior Cup semi-final (Tuesday, 7.45pm) in surroundings that so far have not been kind to them.
Loughgall’s home patch hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for the Fermanagh & Western Division 1 side over the last handful of years, particularly in this competition.
McGrath will no doubt have his players well drilled on penalties, after losing to Immaculata to a late penalty at Lakeview in the 2008 semi-final, and then in a dreaded spot-kick shootout with Bessbrook United at the same stage in 2011.
It hasn’t all been heartbreak for McGrath and his club, however. He played in the Lisbellaw side that lifted the 1978 Junior Cup, and managed the team to the 1997 final.
McGrath has also brought Lisbellaw their fair share of league success, restoring their top flight status a decade ago after leading them to back-to-back Division 3 and Division 2 titles.
So while he is right to be wary of their well-esteemed opponents, he has every confidence in his own team’s capability of rising to the big occasion.
He said: “Our hopes are pretty high going into the match. I don’t know much about Windmill Stars, but when you get to this stage, you’ve got to think you have a 50-50 chance of making the final.
“All I know is that they beat Tummery Athletic, a team out of our division, earlier in the competition, so we know to expect a tough game.”
In preparation for Tuesday’s showdown, McGrath revealed that he has enlisted on the help of an experienced friend to help get the best from his players.
The Lisbellaw boss continued: “Harry McConkey took a session for us there on Wednesday night. He’s really good at what he does, and we were happy to benefit from all that experience he has in charge of the Regions Cup team.
“You could see it gave the boys an extra bit of confidence, and small things like that can make all the difference.”
If previous history is anything to go by, this could be a close contest. Like Lisbellaw, Windmill Stars have one Junior Cup to their name (won in 2003). Also similarly to their Western opponents, they reached the semi-final, as recently as 2012.
Stars' boss Kieran McParland is eager to continue that rich heritage in the competition this week, but unlike other managers, he insists that he didn’t make the Junior Cup his top pre-season target.
He said: “You set out to win your own league – that’s your bread and butter. The Junior Cup is never your priority… I would always see it as a bonus.
“A lot depends on the draws, as you go along, but the further you get, obviously the more important it gets.”
One of the most satisfying factors in Windmill Stars’ journey is the fact that they have made it this far with a completely revamped squad following the departures of a number of key players last summer.
McParland explained: “With Newry City starting up again, we lost a few players to them, then another few went to Orchard City too.
“Usually Windmill Stars would have brought in a lot of ‘big game’ players, but we decided to bring in younger guys, around 19 or 20 years old, from the local leagues.
“It is a great achievement to be this far… this is the first time a lot of these boys have played in a Junior Cup, let alone the semi-final.
“The great thing about them is their fitness is no issue, and they play with no fear. I don’t think they realise how big this is, and I’m hoping to keep it that way.”
That, however, may be a challenge too far, if they make it all the way to the May Day final.