Institute will face Limavady United in the NW Cup semi-final tomorrow.
It almost feels too good to be true, but Institute are preparing for a competitive game this weekend, after an 81-day wait.
The last time Sean Connor readied his team for a competitive game was on September 29 when they faced Strabane Athletic in the Northwest Cup Quarterfinal at the Brandywell. That was the first competitive fixture in over 6 months and the 3-1 win set up a semi-final at Limavady United.
That semi-final has been cancelled, postponed and cancelled again due to the coronavirus, but the game is finally set to be played this Saturday.
Connor and his players got back onto a football pitch last Saturday when they beat Portstewart 3-1, a small but significant step for the Blues.
“It was really good to get the boys back out playing and it was a very positive performance all round,” Connor agreed.
“I think the only dampener was Cormac Burke tweaking his hamstring, but he came off straight away so hopefully it won’t be too bad. It was fantastic to have something to focus on and to have something to really get your teeth into.
“For the boys who have been chomping at the bit for weeks, it was invaluable. It was great for me as well to see just to see how well they have looked after themselves during this lockdown. The attitude was great and we were more focused on the tempo of the game and controlling the pitch rather than the result and, and to be fair the boys did that every step of the way, they were magnificent.”
With the NIFL Championship finally set to start on January 2, touch wood, there is a small sense of normality returning at Institute, with a semi-final, and a potential final incoming followed by the league opener just two days into the New Year.
“It gives a really good focus to what you’re doing during the week and everyone is really looking forward to the game,” Connor said.
“It’s a semi-final also so hopefully we get another good performance and make sure we have a game over the Christmas period to set us up nicely for the first league game.
“Everything we do is all about January and kicking off the league. There’s no hiding it, my target this year is to get up to the Premier Division at the first attempt. I think we were unfairly treated by being relegated so we have got to get back.
“I’m really, really happy with the squad we have put together, I think there is a really good mentality, really good work ethic and good attitude. All the players are coachable and I think we have given ourselves every opportunity.”
The word ‘elite’ has plagued ‘Stute in recent months, with the Championship clubs branded not at a level to start their season. It is a fight that Connor and others are refusing to give up on.
“All the managers have got together and we have now had some conversations between ourselves and NIFL and we’ve been given some quiet reassurance that we will complete our season,” he explained.
“I know there’s one or two things they need to do to make that happen but at this moment in time we’re sitting back and we’re taking everybody at their word and we’re hoping that we can get playing again from the second of January and get our season completed. That’s all we’ve every asked for, a fair crack of the whip, and to get elite status, because the rationale between us not being elite, I don’t think it really stands up.”
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