LIKE Larne boss Graham McConnell, Sammy Smith is back in a leading role at the place he deems his spiritual home, making his comeback at Inver Park as assistant-manager following two years in the chief supporting role at Islandmagee.
“Graham had been in touch with me immediately after being appointed as caretaker, but I felt I owed it to Islandmagee to see them through to the New Year at least. But now I’m back at Inver and delighted to be so,” said Smith, who was brought down to earth with Monday night’s shattering Irish Cup defeat after a decent baptism in Saturday’s draw against a slick Warrenpoint side.
“Everybody around the club – management and coaching staff, players, officials and supporters - is feeling gutted about the cup defeat, especially as a win would have meant another big match on Saturday at home against Knockbreda, with a chance of making the quarter-finals and drawing a big team.
“In fairness, there were a couple of moments of the proverbial madness which contributed significantly to our downfall, but the real truth is that Lurgan Celtic wanted it more and played much better than we did, leaving us with no way back after their three goals in less than five minutes in the run-up to half-time.” said Smith after the 4-1 beating.
“But there were mitigating factors, not least the fact that we had to make five changes from Saturday because of things such as players being cup-tied. And we are a young inexperienced side compared to the opposition.
“For the first 15 or 20 minutes I thought we were doing well, looking comfortable on the ball. But it all went wrong when James Braniff was sent off. From the free-kick, they got the opening goal, then Chris Keenan conceded a penalty when he rushed out and slid into their player. The spot-kick made it 2-0 and it was 3-0 before we had even time to draw breath.
“The lads played for pride in the second half. We didn’t threaten much in the first session but created a few scoring chances after the break and had a penalty shout dismissed in each half.
“All in all, it was really just a bad day at the office and, while we are all feeling down we will get over it soon enough and knuckle down to picking up league points,” added Smith.
So the highs and lows of football with those contrasting results inside 48 hours but, whatever happens between now and the end of the season, nobody will be able to say that the achievements or otherwise came about through a team McConnell inherited.
He reckons he has signed 20 players and about three-quarters of them will be vying for places in the first-team.
“The business was completed last week with the arrival of Chris Murray, the Carrick Rangers full-back who felt he needed a change, and two players who joined us from Larne Tech Old Boys - Lee Thompson and Ryan Kane,” said McConnell.
“Both those lads were with Larne previously and, in my opinion, should never have dropped down to Amateur League. But, happily and thankfully, they are now back at the level where they belong,” added the boss, who was satisfied with a draw on Saturday.
“I’m happy, but not very happy, with a point against Warrenpoint who are unquestionably the best team I have seen playing in our league so far.
“It was a tough task for us, but we had asked the players to go out and make amends for the poor display against Limavady United the week before. And the performance and attitude was exemplary.
“However, I suppose a draw was a fair result in a keenly-contested game, not least because Chris Keenan made a couple of terrific saves near the end.
“It was good to get Chris back so soon and I put that down largely to great work from our physio, Jim McVeigh. He went to hospital with him and gave of his time to come down to the club on Monday and Wednesday, not designated training nights, to give Chris extra work and his expertise was crucial. I want to publicly thank him,” added McConnell.
And now, as a consequence of Monday night’s cup exit, it’s total focus on the league for McConnell, Smith and the rest of the squad.
Report by Kevin Hughes