BY CHRIS MCNULTY
THE tape is beginning to come into focus, but for Cockhill Celtic and Drumkeen United it’s becoming a case of who’ll blink first in the race around the bend for the Four Lanterns USL title.
Cockhill conjoured up a piece of last-gasp drama as James Bradley sank Kildrum hearts in St Johnston with a goal that was as late as you’re likely to see on Sunday.
It was a goal that put them five points clear. Drumkeen United, though, responded in kind with drama of their own: Coming from behind twice to defeat Swilly Rovers 4-3 in the 4 o’clock game.
Champions in 2010, Cockhill are back with avengeance this season. Donal O’Brien has grafted a formidable squad and the Inishowen men almost had the look of a champion yesterday. How many times do you see league winners reflect back on those moments of either luck or sheer determination that got them over the line?
“It could be massive,” said Gavin Cullen, the Cockhill goalkeeper, who has returned to his home club this season.
“That was probably our toughest match all season. Kildrum definitely deserved something out of that: they played well, they’re very well organised. We got out of jail, to be honest. It’s a massive three points for us.”
Having watched Fanad United and Derry City Reserves lift the silverware in the last two seasons, Cockhill set out their stall from the outset.
Cullen said: “No doubt about it. You always come into seasons with a target and an ambition for yourself. From day one in pre-season, our aim has been to win the League.
“It’s going to be hard to get over the line this season.”
A fortnight ago, Garbhan Friel netted a brace in a two-nil win at Drumkeen that sent them to the top; last week, Christy McLaughlin scored a late winner to defeat the reigning champions, Derry; and on Sunday Bradley was the man to rewrite the headlines.
Cullen said: “Nine points is an unbelievable return from those games.
“We’ve been doing well so far in putting teams away. In the last few weeks, we’ve had Drumkeen, Derry and Kildrum, all massive games for us. With the injuries we have, we have ground them out – and it’s been a brilliant few weeks for us.
“As a group, we believe we’re good enough to do it.”
They didn’t have it all their own way yestersay. Darren Cassidy’s 80th minute bullet drew Kildrum level – and Cullen believes that Maurice Toland’s side will have a big say in the title’s destination.
He said: “We started really well and, in the first 15 or 20 minutes, we looked like we’d really boss the game. Kildrum have good experience and the got a way back. They had us where they wanted us at times, especially after they equalised, but we don’t give away much.”
One of Cockhill’s big weapons is their star-studded bench. Gerry Gill and Bradley played half-an-hour each for the Cockhill reserves in a friendly on Saturday to confirm they were in contention for the visit to St Johnston. Their impacts proved key: It was from Gill’s corner that the ball was diverted to Bradley to score the 24-carat winner.
Cullen said: “They’re two of the best players in the League, it’s some quality to be throwing on. We have Aidan O’Donnell out as well and he’s just coming back. It’s good that we have got through games without them. The competition for places will be good from here on in.”
A former goalkeeper with Finn Harps, Omagh Town, Institute and Coleraine, Cullen has come home again for 2013 – and Cassidy’s goal yesterday was only the sixth he’s conceded in ten League games.
Cullen has been impressed by the standard of the USL. He said: “The League is very competitive. It’s my first year playing in the Ulster Senior League and it’s very competitive.
Anybody is capable of beating anyone on their day. There are some great squads in this League, some top-class players and it probably doesn’t get the justice it deserves sometimes.
“It’s a lot different watching the USL and playing in it – sometimes it looks easier playing in it.
“I have to say, the League is a superb League. Our squad in general and some of the others, too, if you had more training and a little more of a professional set-up you could do a job in the League of Ireland First Division.
“It’s two nights a week and you’re cramming in the work, wheras the senior clubs are doing massive work. But the USL has improved and a lot of that is down to the managers. Everyone is very well organised.”
Cockhill have just six games left, Drumkeen seven: who’ll be first to blink?
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