It has been a tough and bitterly cold time of year for the fittingly named Rectory Rangers manager Lee Winter.
When The Park last caught up with the former Armagh Blues boss approaching Christmas, he was expressing his disappointment that his team had lost their first game of the season, but maintained his belief that they could still top Mid Ulster Division 3.
Now, three months and as many defeats later, Winter has been forced to admit those aspirations are no longer realistic, but remains hopeful an attainable place in this season’s top three may be enough to get them where he wants to be.
He said: “Things have gone downhill from then… big time. We have been falling away, and I think Cookstown Celtic will run away with it now.
“It’s all about trying to get second place now, but even third might be good enough for us this season, depending how they change the leagues next season. We just need to regroup and do our best to win our last four games of the season.”
Some would argue that Rectory have already met their toughest challenge of the season, and although they may have shown the potential to go toe-to-toe with the very best in the division, the inexperience of this youthful squad may ultimately have cost them dear.
Back in early December, Winter pinpointed Celtic as one of his club’s biggest rivals for the title, but he couldn’t have anticipated that their forthcoming double-header in January would have such a devastating impact on Rectory’s campaign, nor the circumstances which led to the downfall.
He recalled: “We ended up with a three-week break over Christmas, and when we came back, we weren’t as fit as we’d been. Our first game back was away to Cookstown, and we were holding out well, but they scored two goals in the last ten minutes to kill us off.
“We beat Donacloney 4-0 in the next game, but then we had Cookstown in our home game the week after. We played them off the park, absolutely destroying them, and we went 1-0 up after about an hour.
“But then our captain and best player Scott Richardson questioned the referee’s decision on a free kick he awarded, and ended up with a straight red card. He told the league that Scott had sworn at him, but I was 10 yards away, and all I heard him say was “come on ref, what was that for?
“When he got the red card, I completely lost the plot, and I’ve held my hands up – I swore at him, and called him an absolute joke.”
The consequences of these actions have seen both player and manager receive a four-game ban at a crucial point of the season, while a second influential player, Stewart Trainor, has been similarly suspended for a foul towards the end of the game.
Worse still, they were punctured with a 94th minute equaliser; a free kick which took an agonising deflection to kill off any lingering title hopes they still had.
The knock-on effect has been undeniable, with two subsequent fixtures rained off, before losing against Sandy Hill and then a 6-2 defeat against a Mowhan United placed in the bottom half of the table.
Winter added: “When you are on a downer, it is hard to get out of a rut, and when you are missing key players like the two we have lost, you lose some of your threat. But the players who are in there are doing a great job, as is my assistant Darren Cust.
“It’s a good group of fellas and we are ahead of schedule in the three-year plan we put in place when I took over. We are definitely heading in the right direction.”