Causeway Chronicle

High flying Seagulls out for Cup shock

-Match preview by Lewis Bennett- 

The BetMcLean Cup first round is back on the agenda for another season, with last year’s runners-up Coleraine commencing their campaign against Bangor of the Championship on Tuesday.

The Bannsiders will be the on-paper favourites to start on the front foot against the second-tier’s newly promoted team, who they welcome to The Showgrounds.

But boss Oran Kearney will not want to let things slip to chance in a competition they have enjoyed a strong recent record in.

Having reached each of the past three deciders – participating in front of Sunday crowds in excess of 11,000 during the two most recent editions – the Ballycastle Road side have found comfort in their long forays in the NIFL-run tournament which, on entering its 37th iteration, has seen them feature in the showpiece nine times; a quarter of all the Finals that have been undertaken.o

Basting that record, dating back to the competition’s initiation in 1986, it is small wonder that Coleraine will once again be keen to advance deep into its inner echelons.

Keen to recover in stirring fashion from chastening reversals by an aggregate score of 9-0 to north Belfast rivals Cliftonville and Crusaders, the Premiership’s seventh-place occupiers, who have 14 points in 10 matches – a tally most recently bolstered by a rousing comeback success at Glentoran two Fridays ago – are targeting a return to better fortunes.

Adding to that 2-1 fightback at The BetMcLean Oval, where the ruthless Matthew Shevlin and elusive Conor McKendry delivered a lightning three-minute salvo in the second half, three-point hauls away to Loughgall and at home to Newry City and Ballymena United ensure Kearney’s charges sit seven points off second spot – it in itself highlights a close-knit nature within the top half.

To make the most of what is on offer, the margin for error is growing ever slimmer and there are quality footballers across the division who can make opponents pay the penalty for even the slightest lapse.

Coleraine have a few of that ilk in their set-up.

Matthew Shevlin’s predatory instincts brought about 29 finishes across all competitions last campaign, and the four he has notched up in just six features so far this term implies he is picking up right where he left off.

Conor McKendry’s weaving wizardry makes him a player who can conjure a moment of magic out of nothing, while the elegant yet punishing Jamie Glackin’s skill – if fit – is abundant from both the wing and the heart of midfield.

The fleet-footed Andy Scott, box-to-box Lee Lynch and the nimble David McDaid add further strings to an imposing forward bow.

Kearney, whose season-long spell in charge at St. Mirren is the sole interruption to his tenure at Coleraine since February 2011 – you can count Irish Cup and League Cup glory, plus three runners-up finishes in the Premiership, within that span – knows the territory inside out.

He will have his sights on more silverware, perhaps feeling that the Showgrounds trophy cabinet is in need of stocking up, and certainly targets success in this competition again.

Nevertheless, to achieve that feat, they know they must stay on guard so as not to fall into any unwelcome traps.

If Bangor’s recent form is anything to go by, the Seasiders could lay a few.

Although a 2-1 defeat to Dergview curtailed their unbeaten run at six, Lee Feeney’s squad recently toppled league leaders Newington, with Tom Mathieson converting an 89th-minute winner that sent the Clandeboye Park faithful into raptures.

That result, to add to previous victories over Portadown, Ards and Ballinamallard United, means they sit fifth-placed in the table in their first season back at the senior level with 14 points on the board.

It has been a brilliant start relative to expectations.

Stalemates with H&W Welders and Institute also count among that half-dozen-strong streak of fixtures without defeat – the latter secured by a dramatic leveller by towering centre-back Lewis Francis with seven minutes of added-time played – while, in total, the tally reads that only four defeats have been witnessed in the last 39 league encounters.

Possessing firepower up top in the form of Ben Arthurs, Ben Cushnie, Adam Neale and Scott McArthur, as well as a rearguard which, backed up by the safe hands of James Taylor in goal, has kept four clean sheets this term, there are options at Feeney’s disposal who could give Coleraine a few headaches.

The spirits are up at Bangor, just six years on from the club’s ignominious relegation to the lower reaches of regional football.

2022/23 ranked as one of the all-time greats. Steel and Sons Cup glory was followed by a 70-point title-winning Premier Intermediate League crusade, and the core of that squad is now the foundation behind the first step back into the senior football reaches for seven years.

Inspired by the goal-getting exploits of Arthurs and Adam Neale, who buried 58 between them across all competitions, Feeney also possesses motivating leadership and guile in the form of Adam’s younger brother and vice-captain Reece Neale and midfield enforcer Lewis Harrison, as well as young guns like teenage trio Francis, Ben Walker and Sean Brown, who have all made their presence felt in defence.

24 months ago, a Cathair Friel hat-trick, coupled with additional killer blows by McKendry and Evan Tweed, shot Coleraine to victory by five goals to nil.

This is being heralded as a closer contest.

The Seagulls know they need to be on top form to defy the odds and advance, but their illustrious hosts are likewise aware of the need to guard against complacency.

Within both teams, there is the taste for goals, and there is every chance they could flow at both ends come Tuesday night. As is often the case in cup competitions, twists and turns not in line with the formbook rear their head, and nothing can be set in stone in the pre-match.

It sets up an intriguing tussle indeed.

Causeway Chronicle

Causeway Chronicle