Treks for Donegal League duo
BY ALAN FOLEY
Two Donegal League clubs fly the flag for the domestic scene on their travels in the last 32 of the FAI Junior Cup this weekend.
Both Lagan Harps and Milford United enjoyed fine 1-0 away wins in the fifth round against Freebooters from Kilkenny and Dublin's Trinity Corinthians respectively.
Both those results might've been considered mild surprises on the grand scale of things and as reward the sides managed by Jason Gibson and Peter Doherty will face arduous treks the breadth and depth of the country this weekend.
Carrick United (Waterford) v Lagan Harps - Sunday 1pm
Jason Gibson's Lagan team continue to make progressive steps both locally and nationally. Twelve months ago in the Junior Cup they reached the same stage, going down 2-1 to Glebe North in the capital and making plenty of friends on the way.
Juggling commitments wasn't overly problematic as at home, Lagan made it to the Ulster Junior Cup final, losing 1-0 to Moville Celtic - before getting promotion from the Milford Inn Division One as champions.
This year in the Brian McCormick Sports Premier Division, Lagan currently occupy third place behind the seemingly run-away leaders Gweedore Celtic and Kilmacrennan Celtic.
Gibson, who will leave the post of manager to take over Swilly Rovers when the Ulster Senior League kicks into action late next month, albeit after planning to double-job the overlap, will be missing two key players on Sunday.
Stephen O'Donnell, a nominee for the FAI Intermediate Player of the Year on Sunday, has returned to Kildrum Tigers after moonlighting in the close season with his hometown club, while Seamie Peoples has moved to pastures new in the form of Finn Harps.
"The two lads are important players but we will have to plan without them," Gibson said. "Ronan Lennon is available after doing exams in Dublin and we have brought in Jack O'Doherty to play in wide right. Michael Lynch has a knock but should be fine and hopefully Adrian O'Donnell will recover from a slight hamstring injury to take up Seamie's position in midfield."
Whoever fills that role in the middle of park will do so alongside Aidan Callaghan, whose goal in Kilkenny sealed progression. His fort isn't necessarily goalscoring but the Letterkenny native followed it up with another the week afterwards against Clonmany Shamrocks in the Ulster Junior Cup.
Another man who deserves credit after the previous round is Tony Blake, hampered by a recurring shoulder dislocation but having left the fixture, against Dunlewey Celtic, in an ambulance after another pop-out, the former Donegal GAA goalkeeper pulled off a series of excellent saves to boot Freebooters out.
"Aidan puts in a fantastic shift for us in the middle and practically runs a marathon for us every week," Gibson continued. "Tony, too, deserved credit for playing with an injury that will certainly require surgery - possibly in the summer.
"In the league, we are doing fine and had a good win away to Milford last week with Kevin Kelly scoring two goals in a 2-1 win. The division, though, is tight and a couple of defeats could see us slip to third bottom so we always are wary of that and the priority remains safety."
Lagan will need their players at their best on Sunday to continue their wandering path. Waterford and District side Carrick United dramatically defeated Killester United with an injury time penalty from Alan Ryan to win Junior Cup final at the RSC in Waterford in 2008.
That same season, they reached the last 16 of the FAI Cup, before eventually losing out to a Sporting Fingal team that would go the whole way the year afterwards.
Manager Liam Wells was renowned for his diligence, as were his squad members who trained three or four times a week, were known to go on team-bonding weekends away and even had specialised diets. Adrian Walsh, the goalkeeper, was in the running for FAI Junior Player of the Year.
"We were hammered a couple of years ago in Rathmullan by Portmarnock," Gibson added. "That year, they didn't even manage to go on and win the competition, so with that yardstick in mind this is a huge undertaking for us. We knew after beating Freebooters we would have to play away to one of the favourites in the competition, so we are under no illusions.
"Realistically, we are not going to win the Junior Cup but getting as far as we can is a good thing for the club. We are massive underdogs on Sunday but you never now in cup football. At the minute, we getting good coverage and people are talking about us. It's nice to be involved in the latter stages of any competition. That's why you enter them in the first place."
New Ross Celtic (Wexford) v Milford United - Sunday, 1.30pm
Whereas Lagan have made it to the cusp of the last 16 on a couple of previous occasions, it's all uncharted territory for Milford United, who must encounter an equally challenging trip to make their way to Wexford.
It's not only the mileage that will concern manager Peter Doherty as their opponents New Ross Celtic are well on their way to winning a fifth consecutive Premier Division title.
The standard of football in what is primarily a hurling county is unclear but from studying the form in the sunny south-east, Milford are safe in the knowledge that New Ross are a strong defensive unit. However, in the 1-0 win in Santry in the last round, Milford should plenty of rearguard action of their own with goalkeeper Ian Strain particularly impressive before Christy McCafferty nicked the only goal of the game a minute after half-time.
The Moyle View Park outfit made perfect use of the one clear-cut opening that came their way. Smash-and-grab it may have been, but Milford were denied the services of important first-team squad that afternoon last month for one reason or another and those who stood in did excellently. Darren McLaughlin was forced off with an ankle complaint, while midfield lynchpin Niall Keenan lasted only 50 minutes. That duo are the main worries ahead of Sunday.
"It's hard to know how strong Wexford football is, and so we can't be putting ourselves off too much before we even see what they're made of," Doherty said.
"They've played seven league games and scored 36 goals in the process. They've only conceded six goals and four of them came in the one game so they don't give away too many goals and they score for fun, but we only need to win 1-0. We know they have been crowned the Wexford League champions for the past four years.
""Darren resumed light training on Tuesday night so we'd be hopeful that he will be in line to feature while Niall hasn't been outside the door since Dublin. But, like Darren, we'd be very upbeat about his chances of featuring in some way on Sunday.
"The players, and the town itself, have been buzzing since the Trinity game. There has been a good bit of excitement in the air so hopefully we can carry that momentum into the game now when we travel down to Wexford."