Windsor Park beckons again for Enniskillen Rangers on the May Day bank holiday following Monday night’s semi-final triumph in Loughgall as they bid to become the first Fermanagh club to ever retain the Irish Junior Cup.
Between them, Rangers and Harryville Homers had claimed the last four Junior Cup titles but it’s holders Rangers who go forward to the showpiece final at the National Stadium thanks to Ciaran Smith’s late winner.
“I couldn’t be happier for the players. It was hard going, but the heart, the desire and the passion these boys all have, it’s phenomenal,” beamed Rangers player manager Michael Kerr, who opened the scoring against Homers from 25 yards with as sweet a left foot strike as you are likely to see anywhere.
“Our lack of games recently was a bit of a worry, but our training stood to us and, to a man, we were excellent.
“It’s a phenomenal achievement to get back to the final. Right from the first game we had the trophy in the changing room with us and said we did not want to let that go. The boys got a feel for it last year at Windsor Park, like me, and we want that again.”
After following in the footsteps of his father Dessie and the 1999 Rangers side in claiming the Junior Cup, this is where Kerr and his players will want the parallels to end as that famous Gers team fell at the final hurdle in their quest to retain the trophy 12 months later.
“My father and those boys all say to enjoy the moment,” said Kerr. “Dad was with me on Monday night on the line and was a great help with his experience. He just says ‘Michael, take it one game at a time.’”
After a tense, physical opening quarter the player manager produced a moment of magic to break the deadlock, cutting across the ball beautifully from distance to pick out the top left corner giving Homers keeper Alex McCosh no chance.
The Ballymena club, who are through to the prestigious Junior Shield final and won the Junior Cup in 2014, 2015 and 2016, pressed hard before the break, persisting with their long game and playing off breaks from the front two.
After a succession of corners the pressure told before half-time as midfielder Gary Baird flicked in Ryan Stewart’s dangerous delivery.
Rangers goalkeeper Jerome Carleton and centre-halves Ben Brown and Neil Coulter were being tested to the limit by the Homers game-plan, but they stood firm magnificently just after half-time under six corner-kicks in succession to avert the danger.
Then, in the final quarter, Rangers made their move. Striker Jason Keenan headed a Jamie Robinson cross wide as they continued to get the ball down and play and with seven minutes to go Smith drilled home what turned out to be the winner from 14 yards.
Again a barrage of long balls came at the Rangers defence, but with Coulter and company first to everything, Rangers booked their place at Windsor park next month.
“I don’t really like singling out any one player but Neil Coulter and Ben Brown were colossal. Neil, I don’t know if he’ll like me saying this, just gets better with age, he holds the back-line together and is an example to the rest of the squad with the way he trains and plays, always giving it 100 percent.”
There will be little time for rest and recuperation for the treble-chasing Rangers squad, with local rivals Enniskillen Town United lying in wait in Saturday’s Mulhern Cup quarter-final and league games against Mountjoy and Killen to come next Tuesday and Thursday night. Despite the 15 odd fixtures Rangers face in the next six weeks, you won’t find Kerr complaining.
“This is where we want to be, we want all these games. The squad will be tested and stretched and we will have injuries and suspensions, but I have learned a bit from last year when we rested boys for the cup run.
“We will be going with our strongest team each game and take them as they come, you can’t look too far ahead,” said Kerr who will be at Seaview in Belfast on Friday night to watch the second semi-final between Ahoghill Thistle and Greenisland.
“We have 20 boys there all capable of playing for the first team. I had Stevie Chambers, Mark Cutler and Richard Johnston on the bench on Monday, that shows the squad we have.
“I want to say a special thank you to the supporters we had up in Loughgall, it was fantastic and kept us going and the messages and support we had from the whole league meant a lot to us.”