Dollingstown are preparing for their return to the top flight of Intermediate football. The Planters Park side won their second consecutive Mid Ulster title this season, but this season they went one better by securing promotion back into the NIFL structure. OTT has spoken with Dolly Birds boss Stephen Uprichard this week to get his take on the season, and what lies ahead.
Having won the title last season, Dollingstown then lost out in the promotion playoff to NI Intermediate side Portstewart over two legs. As reigning champions they were there to be shot at by the other sides in the division, but this certainly spurred them on as they entered the new campaign.
“I certainly think it is harder to retain the title”, commented Uprichard. “As the current league champions we were the team that everybody wanted to beat, therefore we had to be at our best and competitive every game. “I think once we got our noses in front other teams had games in hand but it was a case of us taking each match as they came along and looking after our own results and not worry about what other teams did.”
Despite being in control of the table for such a long spell, they were pushed all the way by Banbridge Rangers and Crewe United, with the Intermediate A looking stronger than ever. Uprichard felt this was the case, but his sides form saw them as deserved winners.
“Personally I felt the league was as strong as ever, there is a lot of good teams in our league and it was competitive right until the very end. Around Christmas we would have been about 4th favourites to win the league, but the team produced a superb run of form winning 11 league matches in a row to secure the title.”
“The forwards of course were a very important part of the team but as they would agree the rest of their teammates played a major part. We ended up top goalscorers in the league and also conceded the least goals so its credit to everyone who played a part.”
Having secured the title, Dollingstown were awaiting the winners of the Ballymena Intermediate League, with Bangor and Glebe Rangers fighting it out to win that title. When the dust settled, Glebe came out on top on the back of a fantastic season for the Ballymoney men. However they then took the decision to opt out of the promotion picture, meaning Dollingstown were back in the PIL.
“Honestly I believe there was a mixture of emotions. There was a feeling of anti climax but there was also relief as well. Our target at the start of the season was to win our league and get into the playoffs and we achieved that. A lot of good teams applied for promotion and for Glebe Rangers to win their league was also a remarkable achievement and i think it would have been a very interesting play off.”
Having sewn up the league, Dollingstown added the Marshall Cup to their trophy cabinet in May as they seen off holders Crewe United in an enthralling game at Crystal Park, Banbridge. The game finished 5-4 to Uprichard’s men, having led 4-1 at one stage in the first half.
“It was an enjoyable first half when we were very clinical and in front of goal. To be fair to Crewe they were tremendous in the second half and made it difficult for us but we got over the line and in my opinion over the 90 minutes we deserved it. However, I would suggest it was more enjoyable for the spectators than me!”
Uprichard will be one of the most experienced managers in the PIL next season, having spent long spells in charge at Armagh, Coagh and now Dollingstown. Prior to that he had come through the ranks at Glenavon before spells at Armagh and current Irish League champions Crusaders.
“I was playing for Glenavon since the age of 16 and I made it into the first team there. I then went to Armagh City before Roy Walker signed me for Crusaders. After my spell there I returned to Armagh City, and it was there that my teammates talked me into being their player-manager and that was my first taste of management. After a few years at Holm Park I then moved on to be manager at Coagh United in 2002 and in 2016 I was appointed manager here at Planters Park. I have been very lucky to be associated with such wonderful clubs, staff, supporters and players during my management career.”
Dollingstown brought the curtain down on their fantastic season last week with their end of season awards night, but plans are already in place for their return to the PIL which is just around the corner.
“There hasn’t been much of a break. We’ve certainly had a few celebrations which everyone thoroughly deserved but we realise that the hard work starts now and we know we need to improve looking ahead to next season.”