Ardee Celtic begin their 2017/18 North East Football League Division 1 season on Friday evening with a trip north to face Bellurgan United – and manager Conor Lynch says he believes his side are very capable of competing with the region’s top clubs.
The Font only learned they would be competing in the top tier of local football for the coming season at the start of the month, meaning just three weeks preparation time to make the step up to the Premier Division. That means a shift from going into a campaign with promotion on their mind to thoughts of merely remaining in a hotly contested division. “Consolidation,” is the word Lynch says again and again.
Opposition teams would be remiss to show complacency against the Ardee side this season, especially given some of their pre-season signings. Lynch and new coach John Flanaghan have welcomed prolific goalscorer William Woods back to Townparks for a top flight tilt, while Darryn Gaynor also returns to his hometown club.
They join fellow new signings Karl Martin and Ciaran Clarke in coming in to add to the squad that came so close to promotion last May, before this month’s reprieve at the expense of Navan Cosmos, who have withdrawn from senior competition. All but striker Robert Taaffe – who has retired – remain.
Lynch believes that his four new signings will all provide the requisite Premier Division experience to compliment the core of players who remain from the 2016/17 campaign. He is optimistic that mixture of first team regulars, fresh faces and players coming through the ranks at the club can ensure his team is competitive throughout.
“I think the lads will be able to step up,” he tells ThisIsArdee.ie. “We had a list of four or five players and we brought four in. So, we prepared well off the field and pre-season went very well. I’m hoping we’ve done the right things and prepared well enough and I’m hoping we’ll do okay.
“We’ve strengthened all round – so I’m happy enough. From my point of view, consolidation is the word I’m looking for. Getting up is great, but staying up would be better,” he continues. “That’s they way we’re looking at it. That’s the aim. You hope you get enough points on the board and see what way the season takes you. You wouldn’t want to be in a scrap come March or April time.
“Darryn Gaynor is looking really sharp in training. We signed Fintan’s (Clarke, last season’s First Team Player of the Year) brother, Ciaran. He was the left full for Bellurgan in the Premier last season. He’s coming down with Premier Division experience.
“Karl (Martin) is another good signing and last week we were lucky enough to sign William Woods. He’s a great signing at this level and I’m sure Willie will find the back of the net plenty of times this season, along with Darryn. We have two Premier Division strikers. Maybe last year sometimes we maybe couldn’t find the net – in them last six games,” Lynch concedes. “You need to score at crucial times and I’m sure these boys will do it. They’re looking sharp.”
Lorcan Myles was the club’s top goalscorer last term with seven league goals. Injuries to Taaffe, James McMullen and Stephen O’Brien deprived Celtic of an out-and-out goalscorer for much of the campaign. The fact they remained in the promotion hunt all year was testament to the entire team as a unit, and especially what was a watertight defence for the most part.
All of those key players remain will and hope to be involved again as the season starts on Friday evening out in Bellurgan. Injured midfield duo Paul Matondo and Mikey Nulty will have to wait for their respective returns to action, however. Gaynor is set to make his league debut against his former club.
“We’ve kept everyone else – but Robbie Taaffe – on and that’s great. Paul Matondo has an injury at the minute but we’d be looking for big things from Paul this year,” the coach says. “Everyone is great. I think it was a summer that – for the first time – we haven’t lost anybody and we added to the squad, which is good. The lads we brought in will add a bit of depth and add to what we have.”
“I don’t know if people are aware but we gave debuts to eight first team players under 18 last year. I’m not saying we want to stop that. The club needs young players to grow but we relied a lot on the young players last year and these are lads that still have to develop,” he continued.
That said, Lynch did single out young stars like Shane Hickey and Ben McKenna for praise. The duo look likely to follow Dessie Jibona and Tristan Knowles and become teenage first team squad members in the coming season. Collon native McKenna was voted the Players’ Player of the Year for Frank Dowdall’s third team at the club’s annual awards evening last week.
“Shane and Ben have been with us in pre-season and they’re ready for it too. They both play senior GAA with Mattock, and that’s always a good guideline. They’d be ready to play senior with us aswell.”
Reflecting on the disappointment of last year’s playoff defeat to Boyne Harps, Lynch admits he was taken aback by the team’s failure to secure promotion to the top tier. However, he is adamant his players will enjoy the chance to test themselves at the highest level of local junior football.
“I was fully sure we’d get up with six games to play,” he tells us. “But it wasn’t to be, and that’s how football is. But yeah, I do feel we’re ready. I’m hoping the lads will relish the opportunity. From speaking to the lads, they all want to play at the top level.
When you’re offered the chance to play at it, you take it with both hands. The surprise withdrawal of Navan Cosmos has handed the Deesiders this opportunity to make their mark at the top table. They had an early taste of Premier Division opposition two weeks ago when they travelled to Dundalk to face Quay Celtic in the Kilmessan Shield. It says much about how positively Ardee are approaching this season that Lynch was left ruing a 1-1 draw.
“I was disappointed because we were winning for so long and it was our own mistake for the goal. We had two chances at the start of the second half from the same move and we didn’t put the ball in the back of the net. But that shows the mercy up there – if you don’t take your chances, you won’t win the games. Maybe that’s something we’ll have to improve on in the next couple of months.”