It’s been quite a few weeks since our last Intermediate update and with the ongoing Coronavirus crisis all football remains on hold for the time being. Each of the individual intermediate leagues have been keeping a close eye on the guidance from the IFA, with some now making arrangements to bring the season to an end.

The Ballymena & Provincial League is one of the first to confirm the end of their season. Following a league-wide vote, the Intermediate division, and the three junior divisions, have been brought to an end with titles, promotion & relegation issues decided on a points per game basis.

Long term leaders of the Intermediate division, Dunloy, have been crowned as champions of the division. The McCamphill Park side have been relentless this season, remaining unbeaten and dropping just four points in the 21 games they played until the lockdown kicked in.

When we spoke with one half of the Dunloy management team, Jason Connolly, back in October he told us how he and his management partner, Aidan Doherty, had big ambitions for the club as they began their tenure at the club. We caught up with Jason again this week to get the clubs reaction to this weeks news and how he would sum up the season.

“Incredible! I think its fair to say we surprised a lot of people this season because we just never knew when we were beat, which was a mentality that stemmed from the first game of the season. We were losing 1-0 to Wakehurst – at home with eight minutes to go – and came back to win 2-1 after Karl Fitzpatrick scored twice. From there, we believed we could win any game. At times, we had to grind out results like the 2-1 win up at Brantwood or the huge victory over Belfast Celtic at Glen Road Heights.”

“In both games, we led 2-0, they pulled one back and then we came under significant pressure in those last few moments with lots of high and long balls coming into the box. We would clear it and it would just come back at us again but we never lost focus and the players just would not give up – those games are always so satisfying to win. That being said, we also played some terrific football and had some dominant performances. Our players don’t get paid but showed so much hunger and desire to keep pushing themselves and despite how the season ended, I’m delighted for them that their efforts were rewarded by becoming champions.”

In those early days of the season the management team had targeted a top three finish for the club in a highly competitive division. A blistering start of nine wins and one draw from their opening ten games meant those targets were shifted higher. That form did not drop off with ten wins and one draw coming in the fixtures they fulfilled before the division was brought to a halt.

That adds up to an incredible 2.8 points per game, leaving them as clear winners ahead of St James Swifts whose average was 2.46 ppg, and Belfast Celtic at 2.45 ppg. St James Swifts had played 6 games less than Dunloy at the time of the lockdown, while Belfast Celtic had ten games in hand on the leaders, both clubs behind in games played due to enjoying long runs in the various divisional and national cup competitions.

While the Intermediate crown is a fitting reward for what had been an excellent season to date, Dunloy had been one of the clubs who voted to extend the playing season if possible, preferring to see the season played out, when safe, to its natural conclusion. So how did Jason feel when confirmation came of the end of the BPIL season?

“Gutted! The club and the community as a whole are bitterly disappointed as we had been progressing steadily for the past number of years and this season had so much potential for us. It has been pretty well documented that we were undefeated throughout the 21 league matches we played, but also worth noting that we were in two cup quarter-finals and a semi-final, so we had the opportunity of a clean sweep. To never know if we could have achieved that is the hardest part for me.”

Connolly had indicated back in October that the club had ambitions to progress into the Premier Intermediate League in the future, the next step on the Irish League ladder. Of course, that usually hinges on winning the notoriously difficult Ballymena Intermediate League, and then facing a potential playoff against other interested Intermediate champions.

Whether that will come to pass remains to be seen, but those early ambitions have certainly not changed in Dunloy. “That was always our aim and winning the league was the next step in the plan. Our committee have been very ambitious in regards upgrading McCamphill Park and it has been great being able to pay some of that faith back on the pitch, so we just have to sit tight and see what way things pan out over the next few weeks.”

A season to remember then for everyone at McCamphill Park, as they tore through the competition in one of the strongest looking divisions in BPIL history. While things could hardly have gone better on the pitch, off it there were some sad moments as the club lost two of its biggest supporters during the campaign.

“We would just like to thank everyone who has been a part of our club over the past season and made Dunloy FC what it is. From management and players of both the first team and reserves to the committee, sponsors and supporters to our physio and groundsman, everyone played a huge part in this season’s success. Unfortunately, we also lost some wonderful people over the past number of months. Club founder Gregory McAuley and Christine Scott – mother of players Duane and Eoghan – both did so much in getting the club to where it is now and winning the league is a wonderful, fitting tribute to them both.”