They may not be the favourites to win this year’s Steel & Sons Cup, but Immaculata manager Kevin Lawlor has his sights set on the main prize – and better yet, he believes it could be a major step on the road to one day lifting the Irish Cup.
The man who acts as chairman, secretary, manager and everything in between for the progressive Grosvenor Road club is in a typically upbeat mood as he prepares his side for their Steel & Sons Cup semi-final against Ballyclare Comrades tonight (Monday, Seaview at 7.45pm).
He has every reason to be, too. This is the second successive time the Mac have reached this stage of the prestigious competition, and after narrowly missing out on last year’s final in extra time of their contest with eventual Championship One winners Ards, there is a sense of optimism that they can go at least one better this time.
Yet, if they do reach that Christmas morning final for the first ever time, you can be sure Lawlor won’t be satisfied. He has been aiming for the stars since their introduction to the Amateur League and has fulfilled most of his goals as he has gone along, and intends to keep going.
The Immaculata boss said: “Our aim at the start was to win the Junior Cup, and we won it three times in a row. When we got into the Amateur League we wanted to win a major cup, and we won the Clarence Cup twice. We have won each division we have been in, and we have reached the fifth round of the Irish Cup.
“My boys laugh at me when I say we will win the Irish Cup one day, but why not? We don’t enter competitions just to make up the numbers.
“Last year, when we got to the fifth round of the Irish Cup, people were asking me if I wanted to get one of the big teams, to get a few bob. But I didn’t – as far as I’m concerned, you want the lowest ranked team so you can get as far as possible.
“Then, when you get a Cliftonville or a Linfield or Glentoran in the semi-finals, you can get them on a bad day. That’s knockout football.
“But we have to get past Ballyclare first. Our only ever focus is on the next game.”
As with any big game, Immaculata have prepared well for their upcoming opponents and it’s clear Lawlor and his team have done their homework.
“We’ve had them watched, and one of the main things I see about them is they are tough to beat. They beat Larne, drew with the Welders, and beat Bangor too, but by all accounts Bangor should have scored about four or five. That just shows how resilient they are.”
Ballyclare Comrades manager Eddie Hill admits he hasn’t seen Immaculata in person, but has also kept an eye out for how they have been faring.
He told The Park: “They seem to be winning their league games by five, six and seven, and obviously we’ve seen how they have beaten Championship teams like Knockbreda and the Welders in the past, so we’ll have to be at our best to beat them.
“I would say they wouldn’t look out of place in the Championship themselves. They are an Amateur League team, but we won’t be treating them like an Amateur League team.”
Hill has a collection of Steel & Sons Cup winners and runners-up medals, so he fully understands what it means to be a part of the whole Christmas Day experience.
For that very reason, it was all the tougher to take when they, like Immaculata missed out so narrowly on last year’s final, after losing to Glentoran II on penalties.
“I played in that match last year, and I was gutted, but more for the other boys than me. A lot of them will be wanting to put things right, but they face a massive task in Immaculata.
“They are in exactly the same boat as us. It’s their second semi-final in a row, so they’ll be just as desperate as us to get into the final this year. It should make for a cracking game.”