TO say Sport and Leisure Swifts maintained their league status by the skin of their teeth would be an understatement.
In what was a thrilling finale to the season for the neutral, it was a nervous one for the Glen Road Heights outfit whose fate went down to the final game of the season, a winner take all survival shoot-out with Bangor.
At the start of April, came the ‘league split’ and the Swifts found themselves at the foot of the table with five games to save their season.
Victory against Newington provided the perfect start but the Swifts were brought down to earth once again with damaging defeats against Lisburn Distillery and Dundela.
Two games remained and no less than two wins were required. Three points over Queen’s University in their penultimate fixture set up the relegation decider with Bangor and the ‘great escape’ was complete after a 2-0 victory preserved the club’s status in the Premier Intermediate Division.
For manager, Pat McAllister, it was a sense of relief but ultimately frustration as he reflected on a difficult season on and off the pitch.
“Frustrating would probably be the word,” he explained.
“From pre-season in the last week of June, we had so many problems on the field with injuries and suspensions.
“Off the pitch, players haven’t been available because of work commitments and holidays which is understandable at this level. It’s been frustrating not to have a settled team.
“I’m honest enough to say that on our day we are as good as any team, despite the fact we stayed up by the skin of our teeth.
“It’s been really frustrating. A lot of players need a good pre-season. The foundation for a good season is to be fit. In my opinion you don’t play football to get fit, you have to be fit to play football.
“This is the third tier of Irish League football and our fitness wasn’t good enough.”
On the pitch, Sport and Leisure were ravaged with injuries to key players which included the loss of three first-choice defenders – Mike McMullan, Gavin Johnson and Liam Carland.
The trio would miss a total of 21 games between them. In mid-September, the Swifts also lost centre-forward Darren Gallagher who broke his ankle in just the third game of the season to compound early problems for boss, McAllister.
“We suffered with injuries from the first game really. We also lost players who picked up silly suspensions. Our form was so inconsistent as a result,” he continued.
“The players have to learn too, it is something that could have cost us our place in the league.” Reflecting on their great escape, he praised the character of his players in securing the victory they needed in that all-important clash with Bangor.
“I’ve never doubted the players’ character,” he stressed.
“They were strong enough to go away to Bangor in the last game and get the victory we needed. The players were good enough to do that.
“It was a great escape that kept us up. It doesn’t bare thinking about if we had have dropped down. It’s not something we believed would happen really and kept telling the boys they were good enough and it proved that way.
“We made a couple of signings in January which gave everyone a lift. We have some good characters and real winners at the club.
“It’s no secret that we did not score enough goals but when it mattered against Bangor we got the victory.
“I think we were maybe a wee bit mentally stronger than Bangor and probably wanted it more. I was delighted for us to stay up.”
For everyone at the club, a few weeks break will be well-deserved after their survival miracle and the boss says he is fully-committed to the West Belfast club after making some early plans for next season.
“Planning is well underway for next season already. We need to get a few players in to bolster the squad and we need to hit the ground running,” he added.
“There are going to be some big changes to pre-season come the end of June. I made mistakes last year too which I am determined to put right.
“I can’t wait for next season already. I will enjoy the few weeks break, especially after a fantastic result with the club staying up.
“Flirting with relegation is not something myself as a manager or everyone at the club wants to go through again. I’m no different to any other manager, you are judged on your results and at the end of the day our results weren’t good enough this season.
“When I first came, we finished fourth and then third and I think maybe a few people got carried away.
“It was a massive achievement to stay up given the position we were in and it’s my job to make sure we never find ourselves in this situation again.
“I feel if I get the right three or four players in during the summer then we can challenge at the top.
“I’m fully committed to the club. I’ve had offers from a higher level but Sport and Leisure is a good fit for myself. I enjoy working with everyone at the club and most importantly, the players.”