Over the next few weeks, OTT will be taking a closer look at the four Intermediate League champions, and having a chat with the managers of each of the triumphant clubs about their respective successes this season.
First up we have Strabane Athletic, who were the first side to clinch the title, winning their first NI Intermediate League title in early April thanks to a comprehensive win over outgoing champions, Magherafelt Sky Blues.
Athletic manager, Eamon Curry, has saw his side come close in each of the last two seasons, but this season he felt the players found those extra inches needed to get over the line.
“I’d sum up the season by saying how proud I am of the players. As a group of staff, we have pushed the boundaries and the culture of the group and they have fully bought into it. The players are the most important people at the club and the way they’ve accepted challenges and overcome them makes me very proud of them.
“The dedication to training has been excellent, we are getting 25 plus every week and if a player can’t make training for whatever reason, the general rule is they must track a 5k plus run and post it in our players chat. This shows the rest of the group that, while they may have missed training, they have still invested time into their fitness and in turn the group.”
With reigning champions, Magherafelt Sky Blues, making the early running at the summit of the NI Intermediate League, Curry’s men were playing catch up initially. But by the time March came Athletic moved into top spot, and it was a position they wouldn’t relinquish.
“I felt the division was stronger than ever this season. Maiden City have made the fifth round of the Irish Cup two years running and won the Craig Memorial Cup beating high flying Premier Intermediate side Tobermore United in the final. Then you had Newbuildings who had a great run in the Intermediate Cup and challenged hard for the League, and of course the Sky Blues.
“This season we made the last 16 of the Irish Cup beating some good sides along the way, such as Banbridge Town, St James Swifts and Knockbreda. Also, if you look at some of the players to have moved on from the league, we’ve had the likes of Andy Scott who went to Accrington Stanley from Maiden City. Emmett McGuckin made a move to Dergview from the Sky Blues and we saw Gary Henderson go from ourselves to Ballinamallard. So it certainly shows the league has quality players who are well able to move up levels.”
Strabane has a rich heritage of producing Irish League players over the years, but this season was the first time a side from the town has won an Intermediate title.
“I think it’s very important to respect previous players and groups that have represented the town before us. The town has had some great achievements over the years, and the town has always produced good players. However, I’m just delighted for our current players to have shaken that monkey off the back with regards winning our first title. It has shown that we as a town can produce and be competitive in winning titles. It would mean even more if we can do it again though, but it was a special day and something we won’t forget.”
In his playing days, Curry was a goalkeeper who came through the ranks at Institute and Dungannon Swifts, before suffering a series of injuries that curtailed his playing career. From there he became a very young goalkeeper coach and has since studied hard to gain his UEFA A coaching licence, and now works towards his UEFA Goalkeeping Licence under the tutelage of Packie Bonner.
“I am a qualified PE teacher and have a degree in Sports Studies from UUJ. While at UUJ I began coaching the goalkeepers in the freshers team alongside my fellow Strabane man Brendan Gallagher. My playing days were as good as done and from there I threw myself into the coaching side of the game. My first experience in management was with the Maiden City 1997 group for 3 years. Then I was given the privilege of managing my home County Tyrone for three years in the Milk Cup. I managed Institute under-19s for one season alongside Craig Lynch, who is currently coaching with Harry McConkey at Ballinamallard. I have also been working long term with Frankie Wilson as his goalkeeping coach with the U18 Northern Ireland school boys. I have been very lucky to have worked with and for some fantastic mentors over the years, and that’s something I’m very grateful for.”
Strabane did not apply for the playoff towards the PIL this season, but with the structure that is already in place and future plans, is that something that the club feel is realistic in the years to come?
“100%. I’m ambitious and I want to try and challenge myself as best I can. Our chairman, Seamus Mcllroy, and the committee are pushing this club as far and as hard as they can. I want to help him achieve that and so do the players. It will, of course, be a difficult challenge, but we’ve got state of the art training facilities, a town with a 30,000 population, and when we are playing well they come out and support us in their droves. The council are in the tender process of a new 1.1 million upgrade on our current pitch at Melvin, and this will include a 200 plus stand to allow us to at least push for the Premier Intermediate League. After this, we will see. But yes when you look at some other clubs that can challenge in the Irish league I believe the town has the potential.”
Something Curry feels could improve ahead of the coming season is the coverage the NI Intermediate League gets across the various national media platforms; however, it’s not something that keeps him up at night.
“It would have been nice for the national press to give the club and players some positive coverage for their achievements of course, and not just ourselves here at SAFC but the players and clubs across the league. But I understand the press can’t cover everything and it’s a matter of relevance. Personally, I’m not bothered one way or the other as it’s something I can’t control; my only concern is football only and trying to improve the group of players we have here.”
The summer break is one that doesn’t last long in the life of an Intermediate manager, and as he looked ahead to the break, Curry is quick to acknowledge the contribution of those around him.
“I think my wife and 2 young sons are happy I’m getting a break to be honest! But I think it’s important to recharge the batteries. Paul Kee gave me that advice about 5 years ago and it’s something I’ve never forgotten. However, the prep never stops, the phone will be ringing as players will come and go and other managers will no doubt take a look at some of our lads.”
“Aiden O’Neil (assistant manager), Lee White (fitness and goalkeeper coach), John Roulston (kit man) and Sean Doherty (physio) have all been excellent this year with the boys. Alongside them we have Shay Duffy, Paul Doherty and Gerald McCay looking after the reserves, and without these men, the system doesn’t function. It’s only been just over two weeks since our last game and I’m already getting itchy bones. So roll on the preseason.”