SION Swifts Ladies face the daunting task of tackling reigning three-time Danske Bank Women’s Premiership champions Linfield away from home in their opening clash of the season on Wednesday.
However, while he’d have prefered a home fixture to begin with, manager Tony McGinley is confident that what he describes as their strongest ever squad can ‘lay down a marker’ for the season ahead.
The Swifts have been boosted by the return from injury of Kelly Crompton and Lauren Brennan, who also suffered an ACL issue while playing in Perth, Australia, which followed a spell in the semi-pro ranks in Iceland.
Add to the mix a once again fully fit and firing skipper, Kendra McMullan, the reuturning Zara O’Hagan, promoted youngsters, Tegan Lynch and Kerry Brown, and the majority of last year’s panel, including Ireland senior international Tyler Toland and striker supreme Aimee Mackin, and you can see why he’s quietly confident.
As well as that crop of talent, the Swifts have achieved quite the coup in recruiting Jamaican international goalkeeper, Nicole McClure, who will represent her country at the forthcoming World Cup, which takes place in June in France.
“You never really know until the whistle goes, but we’re not looking past the first game at Linfield because you’re looking at the reigning champions, the champions for the past three years, the team who are the benchmark, the team to beat again and rightly so,” McGinley said.
“I’m sure they might not have wanted us at this stage of the season either, but it’s an opportunity to lay down a marker but obviously it’s a tough ask and we have no doubts about that.
“We’re looking forward to the goalkeeper arriving and getting her integrated into the group and the town because she’s going to play a massive part in our season.
“It’s exciting, not just for us but for the whole league, the women’s game because as far as I’m aware no-one has left these shores to go and play in a World Cup and it might be a long time before it happens again so there’s a great buzz around the camp.
“There’s a great energy about the place and everyone’s looking forward to it. We’re certainly not going up there to lose a game of football, we’re going up there to lay down a marker.”
Last term proved a difficult one for the Swifts. Like this pre-season, aspirations were high, especially on the back of finishing second in the top flight and winning the Irish Cup for the first time.
However, a series of issues derailed their charge for more glory, but having addressed any problems in the post-season and added to the backroom staff to freshen things up, McGinely believes this will be another season of progress.
His support team has been boosted by the addition of a goalkeeping coach for first time. Letterkenny man Tony Blake, who played for Omagh Town, Finn Harps and Sligo Rovers, will undertake that role, while ex-Sligo coach Alan Henry has also come on board to add ‘fresh voices, a different set of eyes and to give things a different feel’.
“Last year was funny because we thought we had put together an even better squad than the year before when we had a little bit of success in the Irish Cup, but for various reasons – injuries, other sports and maybe not the commitment we needed to kick-on – it didn’t go to plan,” McGinley acknowledged.
“We’ve always tried to get better, not just through signing better players but by adding to the coaching staff and looking at what we can do better ourselves to improve.
“In my opinion, I have no doubt in saying we have built our strongest ever squad.
“Every season our aim is for silverware and that doesn’t mean you will, but it has to be your goal. This year because we have built such a good squad, the ambitions can’t help but to be bang in the mix, to be challenging on all fronts.
“If it’s not enough then so be it, but it certainly won’t be for the want of trying,” he concluded.
Sion Swifts campaign starts this coming Wednesday at Linfield, followed by a home clash with Crusaders Strikers at Melvin on April 24 (kick-off for both, 8pm)