It has been a topsy-turvy season for my beloved Lisburn Distillery, the Whites started the year on the back of a strong end to 2016 with things looking up for the club but dreams of promotion soon turned to the all too familiar fight against relegation. Thankfully the second half of 2017 has proven to be much more positive for the Ballyskeagh men and hopefully we can continue this form into 2018 and achieve some sort of success.
Lisburn Distillery went into 2017 on the back of a four game winning run, with three of those victories coming in the league. Having been through two relegations in four seasons it had been sometime since Whites supporters could remember such a run of form and things were perhaps finally starting to look up for the Whites. Whilst sitting mid-table in the league supporters felt that with some strengthening in certain areas a push for promotion couldn’t be ruled out and despite early exits from the Steel and Sons Cup and League Cup the team were still competing in the Irish Cup and Intermediate Cup. In January the team was strengthened with the signings of young players George Douglas, who could play left back or centre back and joined from Shankill United, and Reece Croft, a midfielder from Ballymena United were he had played mostly in their U20 Development side, experienced midfielder Andrew Simpson also arrived having previously played for Ballyclare Comrades.
2017 started with a 5th round Irish Cup clash away to PSNI, the police are in the league above Distillery and eventually finished 4th in their league so there was no doubt that it was a tough game ahead. The Whites did battle valiantly on the day and took the lead through Alan McMurtry but PSNI came back to win 2-1. This meant that the Whites last chance of success in a cup competition was in the Intermediate Cup were we had been drawn away to Portstewart. The north-coast side were a tier below the Whites and whilst most people would have had Distillery down as favourites another tough game was going to be on the cards, indeed the Seahawks would eventually go onto get promoted from their league into the Premier Intermediate League (PIL) alongside Distillery. A Nick Beta brace put the Whites 2-0 up by the 36th but the home side pulled one back before half-time and equalised shortly after. Paul Young then restored Distillery’s lead but just when it looked like progression to the 4th round was all but sealed Portstewart scored a goal in injury time to force extra time. In the first period of extra-time Distillery’s keeper Jack McCrea suffered a head injury and had to be replaced by Tony Galbraith and unfortunately one of the first things the substitute keeper had to do was pick the ball out of the net as the home side went 4-3 up. Another goal late in the game for Portstewart seen them secure a spot in the next round and left Distillery with just the league to worry about.
The Whites continued their good form in the league into early 2017 with a draw against Dundela, followed by wins against Newington and Bangor but things soon turned sour for Colin MacIlwaine’s men. On the 11th February the mood was high in the Distillery camp as the Whites were at home to basement side Sport and Leisure Swifts but supporters, and no doubt players and management alike, were somewhat shell-shocked to find themselves 3-0 down after 53 minutes, Distillery did pull two goals back but it wasn’t enough. This defeat was then followed by defeats against Moyola Park (twice), eventual league winners Limavady (twice – both 5-0 hammerings), Newington and Donegal Celtic and left the Whites plummeting ever closer towards the foot of the table. With just six games left the Whites needed something from their next home match against Tobermore on the 8th April but after ten minutes found themselves 2-0 down, McMurtry halved the deficit but Tobermore soon restored their two goal advantage. Substitute Nick Beta once again dragged the home side back into the game and then in injury time McMurtry scored his second of the game to make it 3-3 and give the Whites a point. Most supporters perhaps felt this had been a game the Whites needed to win, they all were at this stage, but a point had at least put an end to our losing streak and the comeback had shown that there was still plenty of fight left in the players. One thing that was certain was that Distillery would be in the bottom half of the table for the league splitting into the top half and bottom half and what’s more all six teams in the bottom half were still mathematically in a relegation battle.
The Whites suffered defeat at home to Dundela in their first post-split game and this meant that Easter Tuesday’s away game against Sport and Leisure was quite simply do or die as a defeat would see their opponents leapfrog them in the table and put the Whites in bottom spot with three games to go. If the last gasp draw at home to Tobermore showed that there was some fight in MacIlwaine’s side it was nothing compared to what was seen at Glen Road Heights in this crucial relegation six pointer. The young Whites side fought for every ball and buoyed on by a vocal away support (including suspended vice-captain Steven Hislop) raced into a 3-0 first half led thanks to goals from Aaron Harris, McMurtry and Young. The Swifts did pull a goal back but the match was never really in doubt and Harris added a fourth goal in the second half. The only blemish on the night was a red card for debutant Philip Gordon.
The Whites still weren’t out of the woods yet and needed a win against Bangor at home to be certain of their PIL status but the midweek win seemed to have breathed new life into everyone at the club and a brace from Young, one of which was a special strike, put Distillery 2-0 up at half-time. Bangor pulled one back from the penalty spot but soon after the Whites got a penalty of their own and 18 year old Johnny McCaw stepped up, if there was any pressure on the young players shoulders it didn’t show and he dispatched the spot kick with ease as the Whites went onto win 3-1 and secure PIL safety for the next season with two games to spare. For the record the final two games produced a 4-0 win against Newington before that score-line was reversed in a disappointing final day against Queens and Distillery finished the season in 9th place, with Bangor eventually getting relegated.
The season was by no means over though as on Thursday 4th May the most important game of the season, in some people’s minds at least, took place at New Grosvenor when a Supporters XI took on the Distillery first team. Ten goals were shared in a thrilling encounter with everyone coming out a winner in the end with a 5-5 score-line.
It was also a successful season for the clubs ever growing academy as out U13’s won the Daily Mirror Lisburn League and Supplementary Cup double in what was their first season together as a team and the U17’s also went unbeaten in their Lisburn League campaign taking home the league, Lisburn Shield and Lisburn Cup to secure a treble, some of those U17 players have since stepped up to the clubs U20 Development side, who finished 2nd in what was also their first ever season.
Reflecting on the 2016/17 season, the Whites were playing in the third tier of Irish League football for the first time in their history and where also doing so with not only a new management team but also an entirely new playing squad, with only Rhys Grainger staying with the club from the side that was relegated in 2015/16. For this reason while a top-half finish and perhaps even promotion was the target in some people’s minds, a mid-table finish was always much more realistic and I was satisfied if not entirely happy about the 9th place finish. One thing that most people did agree on was that the Whites had sailed too close to the relegation area for comfort and an improvement was essential for the 2017/18 season. With this in mind the management team set to work straight away securing the futures of several key players but also adding Matthew Ferguson a striker from Dundela, two new goalkeepers in the shape of Jonah Nicholl and Paddy Saunders, midfielder Gary Workman and defender Connor Corry. Some of these players, such as Saunders, Nicholl and Ferguson had caught the eye against Distillery in the past, and others such as Workman and Corry had played at a higher level as well. Also signing up for the new season were Barry Moore and William Wharry, both these players had played the previous season with Distillery but Moore had moved to Liverpool for a University course and Wharry was unavailable for much of the second half of the season due to work commitments. Joe Reid was also promoted to the first team and has forged an excellent partnership with Wharry throughout this season.
With pre-season out of the way the new season started with an away trip to Ards Rangers in the 1st round of the Steel and Sons Cup, this was a useful test as only one tier separated the two teams and traditionally Rangers had been one of the top teams in their division. The Whites won the match comfortably 3-1, Ferguson scored a brace on his debut and Beta added the other. This was followed up with a 4-0 win away to Newington in the league and in fact Distillery had a great start to the season as they won their first four league games against Newington, Queens, Moyola Park and Dundela. Queens did get the better of the Whites in the Steel and Sons Cup and a heavy 6-0 defeat against Premiership side Linfield followed in the League Cup, before a first league defeat of the season in a home game against Banbridge. The Whites lost that Banbridge game 5-2 having been down to ten men for most of the game, there were also four penalties in the game with supporters from both sides left scratching their heads at the refereeing at times.
The Whites started their Irish Cup campaign away to Newington in the 2nd round on the 4th November and won the match comfortably 3-0 but this was then followed by a shock 3-1 defeat away to Annagh United, at the time Annagh were rock bottom with zero points to their name. The Whites shook of this disappointment and went on to pick up wins against Donegal Celtic and Sport and Leisure (twice) to climb into 1st place in the league. They also beat Colin Valley to advance to the 3rd round of the Intermediate Cup, where they’ll travel to Dunloy, and seen off Newtowne and Albert Foundry in the Irish Cup to reach the 5th round, where we have been drawn away to Premiership leaders Coleraine.
Unfortunately, the Whites did suffer a blow just before Christmas as they lost at home to Armagh City due to conceding late in injury time. This defeat knocked them off top spot and into 3rd, still level on points with Queens and Dundela, who occupy 1st and 2nd respectively, but they have played a game more than both sides. There is one game left of 2017 for MacIlwaine’s team as they make the short journey tomorrow to take on Queens knowing that a win will move them three points ahead of them and, depending on how Dundela do in their game, possibly back into 1st place. In recent weeks MacIlwaine has also further strengthened the team with the signings of defender Adam Wright and his brother James Wright (midfielder) who both join from PSNI. Neither new signing is available tomorrow but the fact that we are now in a position of being able to sign players from clubs in the league above us is testament to the work MacIlwaine, along with his assistant George O’Boyle is doing at the club.
At the beginning of the season a top-half finish would have pleased me but the fact that we are still well in the chase for promotion, have a return to a Premiership ground to look forward to in the Irish Cup and have another realistic chance of silverware in the Intermediate Cup is more than some fans may have been hoping for. Here’s hoping that 2018 can bring success to the Whites in some shape or form at least.