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Friday 11 Aug 2023
New chapter for ambitious Rathfriland Rangers as Irish Cup kicks off

When Rathfriland Rangers take to the field on Saturday in the first round of the Samuel Gelston's Whiskey Irish Cup it will mark the beginning of a new and historic chapter for the ambitious County Down club.

Having won back-to-back Amateur League titles over the past couple of seasons the Whites decided to push for promotion to the Premier Intermediate League and entered a three-way play-off alongside Oxford Sunnyside and Coagh United earlier this summer.

A convincing 3-0 defeat of Coagh at Iveagh Park in the opening game was followed by a 2-1 victory over Oxford in Lurgan a few days later and, with it, a place in the NI Football League structure for the first time ever.

It was, arguably, no less than Rangers deserved after a trophy-laden past few seasons.

Rathfriland's recent rise can arguably be traced back to victory in the Bob Radcliffe Cup decider on Boxing Day 2019 - a penalty shoot-out win over Dungannon Swifts Reserves at Stangmore Park after accounting for the likes of Banbridge Town and Dollingstown in earlier rounds.

With football affected by Covid restrictions for the rest of that season and the one that followed it might have been feared that any momentum would have been lost. That very definitely proved not to be the case.

Rangers stormed back to competitive action in the 2021/22 campaign and, by now under the guidance of current boss Ally Wilson, clinched not only the Northern Amateur Premier Division title but completed the double with a superb McComb's Coach Travel Intermediate Cup final win over Armagh City at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park.

Their cup defence lasted as far as a quarter-final defeat to eventual winners Crumlin Star last season but Rangers did go on to clinch the league title for a second successive season to book their place in the promotion play-offs.

Looking forward to the new campaign Wilson expressed his eagerness to get going: "It's exciting before the start of every season, but this year is a bit different," he said.

"It's a step into the unknown for us, something we've been knocking on the door of for the last few years. It's a reflection of the ambition and drive around the club and a natural progression of everything we've worked towards."

Rathfriland's preparations haven't gone exactly as Wilson might have hoped although his panel have tested themselves against the likes of Dungannon Swifts, Glenavon, Loughgall and Portadown. 

"It's been a bit of nightmare really with players on holiday or involved with other sports. Although we've been well worked, we haven't been able to field our closest team yet but that's the same for most clubs at this level.

"The PIL is a step up and it looks to be as strong as it has been for the last few years but the standard in the Amateur League is very good too.

"We don't expect to go in and match what Ballymacash did last season, but we're not going just to make up the numbers either. We'll compete and find our way, and then hopefully push on from there."

Rangers travel to face Mid Ulster Intermediate B outfit Laurelvale in Saturday's Irish Cup first-round tie, a game Wilson is eagerly anticipating.

"I know Laurelvale well, I've played and managed there a few times over the years, so I'll know they'll provide a good test."

Despite losing leading scorer Brian Newell to Newry City, Wilson has recruited well over the summer, bringing in the likes of Harry Evans, Jack Barbour and keeper Ronan Burns on loan from Portadown.

And even though he targets players who are 'younger and hungrier', the Rathfriland ship on the pitch is steered by none other than former Glentoran, Glenavon and Portadown midfielder Andy Kilmartin who is still captaining the side at the age of 40.

Describing Kilmartin as a 'fine wine', Wilson was adamant when pressed on his own playing ambitions. A club legend in his own right, the 37-year-old laughed that 'there'd be something seriously wrong' if he was forced to pull on the boots again!

Full list of Samuel Gelston's Irish Cup R1 fixtures below

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