Irish Cup magic still strong as Annagh count down to dream Linfield date
Ciaran McGurgan’s childhood memories include regular trips to Windsor Park with his father as football fans on Irish Cup final day.
Now he will be making that same journey from Portadown to Belfast but as manager of hometown club Annagh United to take on Linfield in the showpiece competition.
In a season unlike any other, McGurgan’s Annagh face Linfield on Tuesday, April 27 in a fixture unlike any other - a first-ever meeting between the clubs within a chapter unique in the 140-year history of Northern Ireland football’s knockout jewel.
A tournament initially restricted in numbers to 32 teams as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, then revised and revamped in the aftermath of six clubs opting to withdraw due to issues surrounding elite status, McGurgan maintains the Irish Cup magic remains as strong as ever as he finetunes final preparations for a game that stands as a landmark date in Annagh minds.
McGurgan has a lifelong connection to the club - from his roots as a boy spending Saturdays around Tandragee Road watching his father, Brian, serve in various roles to pulling on the jersey as a player before moving into coaching and management.
Having stepped into the hot seat to help navigate some difficult days in recent years, to enjoying promotion last season into second-tier status, McGurgan is steeped in the rich role Annagh plays for those connected at all levels.
“We have always been a community club in Portadown counting on a small but dedicated band of people who step up and roll up the sleeves to get the work done,” said McGurgan. “This season was supposed to be our return to the Championship as Premier Intermediate League champions.
“Over the past few years a lot of work has been done around the ground in terms of developing, painting, cleaning, renovating and making progress as a club overall, along with the work put into the various teams.
“Even if we cannot actually use the changing rooms or facilities at this point, people can still take pride in the forward steps made across the board and it is still inspiring for the players to come in for training or games and see the improvements thanks to the efforts of club volunteers.
“We have the social distancing aspects and protocols in place around the coronavirus situation connected to our Irish Cup participation.
“It has been difficult telling players’ family members or fans who watch us week in, week out that they must stay away but we are grateful for the opportunity to get back out on the pitch and everyone understands the need to adhere to the regulations.
“One positive out of so long away from the club is the renewed sense of purpose in everyone to maximise this time together.
“Since we’ve been granted elite status for our period in the Irish Cup, a return to training and friendlies over the past few weeks has given everyone around the club a step back towards some sense of normality.
“You could see it on the faces of everyone on that first night back - the smiles and sheer joy at being part of club life once again, even if it only lasts for a short while.
“The jump in activity over WhatsApp messages and phone calls once we got the green light was brilliant.
“At times in the past, like most clubs, we’ve maybe struggled to get full numbers at training but that was certainly not a problem for that first night back.
“We kicked everything off by keeping it nice and relaxed really and simply getting footballs back at the feet of our players.
“We played our last league game in March 2020 and went months and months without even having the chance to train together, so it is something special just to be out on the pitch as a squad.
“As manager, it will be about restricting the numbers down to those selected for Windsor Park but I’m holding off until I feel it is the last possible moment.
“That way, as many as possible can get back that sense of being involved in football after so many months out.”
Annagh visit Linfield faced with special tests beyond the significant traditional head-to-head differences on the field of play - going up against a top-flight team bolstered by the benefits of a regular campaign compared to McGurgan’s players absent of any sustained minutes, plus attempting the seismic task of reducing the existing gulf created by record books, resources and reputations.
“Facing Linfield at Windsor Park is always going to be the big draw, the tie everyone wants to get,” he said. “Everyone wants to play at Windsor Park.
“For all of those reasons already outlined and many more there was never a doubt in my mind we would stay in the Irish Cup for the Linfield tie.
“This season may be completely different in so many ways but that appeal remains the case, especially for our players.
“We have some guys with experience of senior football and facing Linfield but for so many it could be the only time they ever play at Windsor Park.
“For some of our players they will go into the match looking to maybe lay down a marker and test themselves against the defending Premiership champions.
“Others maybe in the closing stages of careers will use it as a final big memory and those at the start might see it as a platform to impress.
“Everyone given the opportunity will have individual motivation on top of the usual team pride.”
Having so often spent time watching games from the Windsor Park stands, McGurgan is relishing the viewpoint at pitch level.
“The support within the club to move forward with the Linfield tie has been unanimous and the feeling around the club is we should embrace and enjoy every second back together,” said McGurgan. “It is not going to be the same without the usual fans or financial benefits and we are looking into ways to still make it a special occasion around the coronavirus regulations and fact it is a midweek kick-off with guys at work during the day.
“But the Irish Cup is still a special part of any season and we’ve always looked out for the draw each year in the hope you get a good away tie for the team bonding experience of a bus trip together or chance to eventually play one of the big boys.
“In the past we’ve lost out to teams in early rounds who have ended up playing Premiership clubs down the line.
“Now this is our chance to play Linfield at Windsor Park.
“Linfield as a club and David Healy as manager have been superb to deal with leading up to the game.
“I’ve said in the past the result is irrelevant and it’s about the bigger picture of simply giving the players and people around the club a reward for having to miss out on any kind of regular club life for so long.
“That is true but as a manger and players we obviously want to go out and do the club proud on the night.
“We will be putting everything into our preparations and everything into the game.
“Despite everything else surrounding the competition and season, we still look on the Irish Cup as an iconic part of football in Northern Ireland.”
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