It was a step into the unknown for one of Ireland’s oldest clubs this season as relegation in the previous campaign saw Lisburn Distillery playing in the third tier of Irish League football, the newly revamped Premier Intermediate League (PIL), for the first time in their history.
The transition wasn’t made any easier by the departure of manager Sean-Paul Murray and his backroom team, as well as the majority of the previous season’s first-team squad moving on, only Academy products Rhys Grainger and Jake Nelson played for the first team in 2015/16 remained this season.
The 24th May 2016 saw Albert Foundry manager Colin MacIlwaine appointed as the ‘Whites’ new manager and he was joined at the club by George O’Boyle, Paul Mateer, and Steven Parry. O’Boyle, in particular, was no stranger to the club having had a spell as a player at New Grosvenor during the 1985/86 season.
The new management team set about building their squad and added some experienced names such as Steven Hislop, Stephen Curley, William Wharry, Darren Doherty (who won a large amount of the end of season Player of the Year awards), Jody Lynch (previously a Premier League winner with Cliftonville) and Paul Young to the side, mixed with some promising talent in the shape of the likes of Alan McMurtry (who would go on to finish the season as top goalscorer), Johnny McCaw and Padraig McParland.
Having suffered two relegation’s in four seasons, and the two seasons in between not producing much to write home about, most Whites fans would have snapped your hands off for a comfortable mid-table finish but a good pre-season produced wins against Derriaghy CCFC and East Belfast, as well as promising performances against Linfield and PSNI from higher divisions, and finally a convincing 4-1 win against Annagh from the league above had most Whites supporters looking to season 2016/17 (Season 137 in the clubs history) with some degree of optimism.
The first half of the season produced a fairly mixed set of results in the league with the side generally staying around the middle to bottom end of the league, though were far enough away from the relegation zone to prevent any real concern setting in. The Whites crashed out of the Steel & Sons Cup and the League Cup at the first hurdle, the League Cup, in particular, producing a painful 11-1 defeat away to Premiership side Cliftonville.
The Whites fared better in the two other cup competitions they were in as wins over Rosario, Queens, and a particularly satisfying 1-0 win over local neighbours Lisburn Rangers and St Luke’s saw the side reach the 5th round of the Irish Cup, the entry point for Premier League sides, where they were drawn to face PSNI, from the division above, away from home. Distillery took the lead in that game thanks to Alan McMurtry but couldn’t hold on to it and in the end went down 2-1 but didn’t disgrace themselves against a PSNI side that would go on to finish 4th in the Championship. In the Intermediate Cup Distillery defeated Camlough Rovers (10-1), a Ballynure Old Boy’s side featuring twice capped Nigeria international Kevin Amunuke and eventually went out of the competition against Portstewart (5-3 AET) at Seahaven, Portstewart would go onto get promoted to the Premier Intermediate League and we look forward to our return visit in 2017/18 as well as welcoming them to New Grosvenor.
The aforementioned St Lukes results in the Irish Cup is particularly significant as it set the Whites off on a run of four wins in a row, including an impressive 2-0 win away to Newry and a smash and grab injury-time win at home to Queens University. These two results in early December marked the first time we secured back to back league wins this season. In f, ct following the Whites win over St Lukes they went on to win 5 out of the next 8 games with the only 2 defeats being the aforementioned Irish Cup and Intermediate Cup defeats. This run of results seen the team within touching distance of the promotion spots and supporters were daring to start thinking of the impossible.
Unfortunately, any hopes of promotion were soon put to bed as following this run of great form the Whites then went on a torrid run that saw them lose seven games in a row, leaving the club firmly in the midst of (yet another) relegation dogfight! The rot was finally stopped at home to Tobermore when Distillery fought back from 3-1 down to secure an injury-time point.
In the PIL, each side plays each other twice before the league splits into the top six and bottom six, with the teams playing the teams in their own half one more time each, so the Whites knew that while the matches against the other bottom half teams were winnable, every team would be fighting for every available point with only a handful of points separating the teams. Distillery couldn’t build on their draw with Tobermore and lost their first post-split fixture 2-3 against Dundela, making the next game away to basement side Sport & Leisure Swifts on Tuesday night must win.
Sport & Leisure had spent much of the season at the foot of the table but were certainly not an outfit to be underestimated, indeed the Whites had taken only 1 point from a possible 6 against them so far this season. The supporters and players all knew what was at stake and backed on by a superb vocal support (joined by suspended vice-captain Steven Hislop) the Whites dominated the game and ran out 4-1 winners thanks to Goals from McMurtry, Paul Young and a brace from Aaron Harris, the only downside being a red card for debutant and man-of-the-match Phil Gordon.
This result meant the Whites could secure survival with a win over Bangor at home on Saturday and buoyed on by their midweek heroics the result never looked in doubt with a 3-1 win securing our PIL and Irish League status for another season. The two remaining fixtures produced a 4-0 win at home to Newington before that outcome was flipped in a disappointing end to the season away to Queens. To show how tight and competitive the PIL was, Bangor were in the top six at the beginning of April before finishing bottom and suffering relegation at home on the last game of the season after defeat against Sport & Leisure.
In the end, Lisburn Distillery finished the season 9th which all things considered could be called a reasonable enough return, however, finishing five points above the relegation zone could be described as too close for comfort. Hopefully, some strengthening in the right areas will see us push on into the top six next season.
Roll on season 138!!!!!!!!!!!