Kilkeel will be hoping their never-say-die attitude will inspire them to what would be a first-ever Kirk triumph as they prepare to take on Mossley in the Stephen’s Day final at Stormont (3pm).
The Co Down side staged a memorable comeback in their semi-final with Instonians, who went into the game as many people’s favourites to repeat their 2015 triumph when, ironically, the Belfast outfit beat Mossley.
Kilkeel were, or so it seemed, staring defeat in the face when they trailed 2-0 with only eight minutes left but they rallied to score twice and force a penalty shoot-out which they won to reach the showpiece for the first time in the club’s history.
However, Kilkeel’s task has been all the more difficult by the fact Mossley have been able to call upon 231-times capped Ireland star John Jackson for the game.
The Rio Olympian, who grew up at the Newtownabbey club, plays his hockey for Bath Buccaneers in England, who are on a winter-break and the 31-year-old has been given clearance to play.
Mossley coach Ricky Lee explained the background to the scenario and hasn’t ruled out further appearances for Jackson later in the season, with a few provisos.
“The club traditionally have a few players that return home for Christmas from university etc. Although John isn’t at uni anymore, he was still coming home for Christmas and was keen to play a bit when back here like any other returning student,” said Lee.
“We received confirmation that the appropriate transfers had been completed and cleared just this week and are glad to have his experience for the next few games.
“John has grown up at Mossley and has sought to play for his boyhood club at every opportunity and even returned last season as the main speaker at the end of season dinner.
“He is very fondly thought of about the club and it will give everyone about the club a big lift to see him don an amber shirt once again over the festive period.
“[Regarding the end of the season] it’s not a conversation that we have had, but not something that I would rule out. Everything would have to tie in with John’s own circumstances (family, work, hockey) and the timing of Mossley matches.
“I certainly wouldn’t want to put him under any pressure to commit to something like that. We would just have to get through some more of the season and see how things pan out.
“Having him at the tail-end of the season would certainly be a great asset but there needs to be quite a few ducks in line before we could discuss it.”
Undaunted, Kilkeel are looking forward to the final and hoping to end Mossley’s hopes of a first Kirk triumph since way back in 1983, three years before Jackson was even born.
“It’s a fantastic achievement for the club and has given the team a real lift going into a busy period of the season,” said Kilkeel captain Gareth Russell.
“For the players, it is a real bonus to have reached a Kirk cup final and hopefully we can produce a performance fitting for the occasion.
“As regards our comeback against Inst, it says that we have a great team spirit and a never-say-die attitude, even when we are not maybe playing to our full potential.
“Our main strength in our togetherness as a team. We have a pacey attack which causes all teams trouble no matter what level they play at. We also have a solid defence and will hope to use these strengths to control the game. although it’s going to be a tough one.
“Mossley have always provided us with a tough game, no matter what the competition or location. We played out a very entertaining draw in the group stages of the Kirk Cup. If the final is anything like that game, it will be a very enjoyable watch for the supporters and the neutrals alike.
“We will prepare accordingly as we have plenty of previous experience of their strengths and weaknesses and our main focus will be on ensuring we play our own game.
“We have performed reasonably well in what has been a disjointed start to the season in terms of fixtures as to date we have only played five league games to date.
Mossley coach Lee says his players will be anxious to reverse the result of the 2015 final but acknowledges the fact Kilkeel will pose a stern test.
“For some of the guys who played in the final two years ago, there’s a strong desire to put in a performance and make amends for a poor showing on that particular day.” said Lee.
“I suppose for the club on the whole, however, having only won the competition once in 1983, adding some prestigious silverware to the trophy cabinet would give a great deal of pride to everyone involved.”
Lee is hoping a heightened level of physical fitness could hold the key to Mossley’s chances of winning the final although maintaining full focus for 70 minutes will also be crucial against Kilkeel.
“This year we have seen a big improvement in our fitness and we have been able to finish games strongly as a result,” he added.
“Having said that, most finals tend to be close affairs with one or two defining moments so keeping our focus throughout the 70 minutes may well prove to be key.
“We haven’t played Kilkeel in the league this season but, last term, we drew 1-1 and lost 5-4 in the two games, so all the recent fixtures have been close.
“They have some fantastic home-grown players, a vocal support and a great self-belief in what they do so getting by them on Boxing Day will be no easy task and we’ll need to be at our best to pip them to the trophy.”