IRISH CUP: Richhill ready for Dollingstown visit on landmark day in village

Richhill AFC at the Irish Cup fifth-round draw. Representing the Mid-Ulster Intermediate League Section B club are Neil McCartney (fifth right), Gareth Wilson (vice-chairman, fourth right), Ryan Harper (third right), Neil Megaw (chairman, second right) and Neil Rowntree (manager, right). Also included are, from left, David Martin (Irish Football Association president), Marty Hughes (Dollingstown) and Nathan McConnell (Dollingstown). Pic by PressEye Ltd.
Richhill AFC at the Irish Cup fifth-round draw. Representing the Mid-Ulster Intermediate League Section B club are Neil McCartney (fifth right), Gareth Wilson (vice-chairman, fourth right), Ryan Harper (third right), Neil Megaw (chairman, second right) and Neil Rowntree (manager, right). Also included are, from left, David Martin (Irish Football Association president), Marty Hughes (Dollingstown) and Nathan McConnell (Dollingstown). Pic by PressEye Ltd.

The history of Richhill AFC may date back mere months but January 7 will mark a landmark occasion for the village club.

Dollingstown visit Richhill Recreation Centre on Saturday in a bid to block progress by Richhill AFC as the lowest-ranked club left in the domestic game’s most high-profile knockout competition.

A place in the Irish Cup sixth-round draw stands as a reward for one of the two Mid-Ulster Intermediate League-based sides - with the potential prize another significant step forward in the life of a club formed last summer between Richhill and Broomhill to strengthen the future of football in the region.

The rise of Richhill AFC has led to a spot as Intermediate B leaders ahead of the visit by a Dollingstown side now back in Mid-Ulster circles following two Irish League campaigns at Championship level.

Domestic commitments may remain key to the long-term development of Richhill AFC but manager Neil Rowntree admits a sense of cup fever around the village since the fifth-round draw presented the historic 90-minute challenge.

“The league remains our bread and butter but you can call the Irish Cup tie the jam on top,” said Rowntree. “People around the village have been talking about the tie for weeks now since the draw and the whole experience has been amazing for us all.

“We could have gone down to the draw in Belfast with a busload of people due to such high interest but were limited to just five.

“The Irish Football Association sent the cameras down to our training for a video preview and donated 10 footballs at £100 a go to the club, which is a great boost.

“It is a big day for the club and a massive moment for Richhill AFC following the summer amalgamation.

“Dollingstown go in as favourites for certain but we will be looking to use home advantage to give us an edge and expect a big crowd down to support us.

“It is great for Mid-Ulster football to know one of the clubs will be making it into the next round and we want to do everything possible to make sure it is Richhill AFC.”

Preparations have included a demanding festive training programme, UEFA ‘A’ Licence-standard coaching sessions and alcohol ban within the team.

“The hard work of the committee and everyone associated with the club has been superb, not to mention the council staff in preparing the pitch,” said Rowntree. “But that support can only take you so far and the responsibility turns over to the players after my pre-match teamtalk on Saturday.

“However, the attitude of the players has been brilliant, not only from the day the club formed but especially leading up to the cup tie.

“They came in around the Christmas period and worked really hard, with the club helping us secure UEFA ‘A’ Licence coaching support for six sessions.

“We have been getting an average of about 30 players at training all season really and that dedication has allowed the club to make such a great start to the league and reach this stage of the Irish Cup.

“When I was at Tandragee Rovers and we won the Bob Radcliffe Cup as part of a treble-winning season I remember Tony Bell put an alcohol ban in place for the Boxing Day final.

“We put the same situation in place as part of our preparations and, in fairness to the squad, the players have just displayed that same commitment to all areas of getting ready for the match.

“It is going to be a massive occasion.”

Rowntree’s connection to Dollingstown manager Stephen Uprichard dates back to his time as a player on the books of Armagh City, along with current Richhill AFC chairman Neil Megaw.

“I played for a brief spell under Stephen and he is one of the true gentlemen in football, plus someone who I picked up a lot from in terms of man-management skills,” said Rowntree. “I am only five years in management and use bits and pieces from every manager, including Stephen and Tony, especially as we were so often underdogs at Tandragee on the way to that Bob Radcliffe Cup win.

“Josh Finlay’s registration has cleared following his move from Loughgall and I have 16 players to name for a game everyone wants to be involved in on Saturday.

“It is the first time something like this has happened in the history of the village and might never happen again, so it is up to the players to grab the opportunity and I am sure they will give it everything on the day to reach the next round.”

Stephen Uprichard arrived at Dollingstown in the closing weeks of 2016 but it has been far from a case of out with the old at his new club.

The experienced manager was selected to replace Gary Duke following the latter’s departure from Planters Park to Annagh United during November.

Uprichard secured a Bob Radcliffe Cup prize on Boxing Day at the expense of Coagh United, a former club, for his second trophy triumph in that competition across a double-figure tally of final appearances.

Now this weekend’s Irish Cup fifth-round trip to Richhill will provide another connection to a past touchstone in Uprichard’s Irish League career.

Dollingstown tackle Richhill AFC in the test between two Mid-Ulster Football League representatives in the domestic game’s most high-profile cup competition.

Each player, official and supporter connected to each respective camp will spend the next few days up to kick-off dreaming of progress into the sixth round and a financial boost on offer against a senior Irish League side.

Uprichard may allow himself a private moment to contemplate a cup adventure this season but he will also approach Saturday with memories of past links.

“I was manager of Armagh City when the Richhill AFC manager, Neil Rowntree, was a player and also the club chairman, Neil Megaw,” said Uprichard. “Both are great lads and I have only heard positive things about the club since they formed between Richhill and Broomhill.

“Neil has really made a great start to his career as manager and we actually stay in touch quite a bit.

“As a club with many players from the village area they can bring that real sense of team unity and it is going to be a tough challenge.

“People may look on Dollingstown as having the upper hand because we dropped back down into the Mid-Ulster level this season but I view it more as an even tie.

“After the Bob Radcliffe Cup win we want to push on and build on that lift.”

Kick-off will be 1.30 in Richhill Recreation Centre.