You might think that, with an FAI Junior Cup final to look forward to that Evergreen would be taking things easy, but a string of tough games has been their lot.
Not that captain Niall Andrews is complaining!
“We’ve had some good games, tough games,” he said as the big game in Dublin looms large. “Since beating Boyle Celtic in the semi-final we’ve had the Shield final, then had two League games in a week.
“The FAI Cup game against St Mary’s was another good test,” he added. “We’ve been lucky that we have players coming back from injury, people like Jamie Owens and Decky McQuillan, so we’ve been able to rotate the team and get lads game time. They’ve been able to regain their match fitness so it looks like we’re in good stead.
“The squad is very strong and we’ve been kept busy, which is great. There’s a good focus there. Now it’s about turning up on the day and making sure we give the performance.”
Competing in a variety of competitions has kept Evergreen sharp, something Andrews believes the squad has relished.
“We were coming off the high of the Cup semi-final, which was an emotional day for everyone in the club, so to go straight into the Shield final helped focus the mind again,” he said. “We’ve been the holders of the Shield for the last few seasons; it’s a trophy we like winning, so it was good to see us give a good performance.
“After that we had two tough Premier Division matches in the space of a few days, games we had to win if we wanted to have any chance of retaining the League.
“There was some squad rotation, giving lads a chance to play, but we won both games well. Things were made tougher with the sending-off in the Stoneyford game, but we showed great character and resilience in the squad.
“The St Mary’s game was the same,” he said of their FAI Cup preliminary game, which went all the way to penalties.
“We didn’t make things easy, going two down in the first half. We had to come back from that, but from the second half onwards I thought we outperformed them.
“We played well and all the hard work we’ve done on our fitness means that the heavy workload of games has helped us to hit good form. There’s a maturity about the team, some very, very good resilience about the side. We’ve been in some sticky situations in the last few years but there’s never a level of panic.”
The team has had plenty of testing moments, but coming through them has helped to keep the side playing at a high level.
“That’s the thing about playing with a club like Evergreen,” he said. “I’ve said for years that there’s an expectation of you to be challenging in any game you play. It’s the reason you play for the club – you want to go out every week and give your best. It’s the same in training – we bust ourselves in training so that when the weekend comes we can produce the performance.
“That’s something we relish,” he said. “Setting standards and trying to maintain them, making sure we’re on it every time we play.
“There’s an element that teams will come to our ground, especially after the semi-final win over Boyle, and have a pop at us, but why not – I’d be the same if I was in the opposition!
“It’s great because you have to rise to the challenge,” he added. “That builds character, it builds a resilience in the team. You could see it in Sligo and against St Mary’s, that never-say-die attitude, but that comes from years of hard work and trusting each other, knowing that we have the ability to get out of any situation we find ourselves in.”
That confidence is apparent in a side who seem to have more belief in themselves.
“It probably goes back to when the lads took over,” Andrews said of Packie and Brian Holden. “They’ve instilled that belief in us to be the best we can be. We’re lucky too to have David Roche (physio) in as a Strength and Conditioning coach.
“He’s been brilliant with his injury prevention work,” Andrews added. “He’s kept me going – I’m held together by tape some days!
“Everything has been put in place for us to succeed, but there is a hardness, a resilience to the side,” he said. “We’re probably coming to a stage where we have players like Robbie Quan, Chris Whearty, Sean Barcoe who are hitting their peak years to go with a mix of younger players.
“We have guys there who, if they don’t start in the 11, we can bring on to affect the game. You could see it in Sligo, when Decky McQuillan, Daragh Walshe and Ben Hickey came in and changed the dynamics of the game. We have that in the squad, but it’s been built up over the last few years. We’ve lost players, but the core has stayed together, which is where the belief has come from.”
Evergreen have done well to bounce back from their Leinster Junior Cup final defeat to Sheriff last season, with Andrews taking positives from the experience.
“The Leinster Junior Cup loss was difficult,” he said. “I thought we played quite well on the day, but a freak goal and a contentious penalty hurt us.
“The one thing losing that game did give us though was belief,” he said. “Sheriff were the standard bearers, but I thought we matched them that day. We have huge respect for them, but we’ll give it our all.
“When you get to a final and you fall short it does drive you on again,” he added. “We have 15 or 16 players who were involved from the Leinster Junior Cup who will be here again on Saturday. They’ll have learned that it’s about the game, not the occasion. You can savour the occasion, but only if you win it.”
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