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*Bridge Utd’s Kieran Quinlan and Leon Kelly. Photograph: Natasha Barton

THEY MAY HAVE CONTESTED two Clare Cup finals in the past seven years but anyone involved in Bridge Utd will admit the club have not challenged strongly enough for honours at the top table of soccer in the county.

However, there is a desire that Bridge Utd will bounce back in contention as one of the forces in the Maloney Garden Machinery Premier Division.

To do that, they’ll be looking to key players of their 2020 Youths double-winning side such as Liam Buckley, Adam Fitzpatrick, Leon Kelly and Storm Devanney. From that outfit, Scott Kirkland has since signed for Treaty Utd and has lined out at League of Ireland level.

Mark Culbert was manager of that highly impressive Youths side and he’s now in his second season in the hotseat over the club’s A team. The focus for him is simple, “it’s progression again, last season we wanted to be consistent in every game and we did that in the second half of the season with strong performances week in week out. We want to close the gap between Avenue Utd, Newmarket Celtic, Shannon Town and ourselves, they’ve been the top teams for how long, we’ve been ten to fifteen points behind them at the end of each season and we want to close that gap”.

Losing players like Kirkland and Lee Mulready puts the club in a positive light, he believed. “Liam Buckley, Adam Fitz and Scott were left to go in and better themselves with League of Ireland soccer. We’ve got Liam and Adam back after one League of Ireland season, they’ve improved for the time they’ve went away, it’s great to get them back with that experience under their belt”.

Both Buckley and Fitzpatrick though in their early twenties are key leaders of the Sixmilebridge side. “We’ve been tagged as an inexperienced side more so because of that youths team and we’ve a great underage but to say that to Johnny Downes or Alan Mulready that we’re inexperienced and building towards the future, they want to be there at the top sooner rather than later, we all want to get there sooner rather than later”.

Making the step-up to adult level has been an experience for players and management, he admitted. “We definitely learned, we finished strong and with a squad of players that trained hard and wanted to train hard, it really makes us better with a togetherness and when you enjoy what you’re doing. Our training is a full proper hour when you really enjoy it, when you’re doing that on the training field then it usually transfers to gameday and that bodes well. Last season was our first year in management at Premier Division level, we learned from playing the likes of Avenue Utd, Shannon Town and Newmarket Celtic”.

Having played for Bridge Utd’s A team for 17 years, Mark is hopeful he can aid the club to become more competitive at the top tier again and potentially add to the two Premier Division titles won by the club. “I did love it and it does mean a lot to me, I enjoy what we’re doing, we’re putting a lot of hours in and a lot of effort to give back to the club. Hopefully this will get us back to being competitive in the Clare league”.

His tenure has been assisted by positive relations with Sixmilebridge GAA club which has seen increased access to senior hurlers Conor Deasy and Brian Corry in the past two seasons. “They’re brilliant lads. Nobody wants to dog the lads, there’s great understanding there, they’ve been committed and they have been a fantastic addition. But in our set-up, being overly reliant isn’t a good thing, every team has GAA players but if you can get your house in order without them you’re not doing too bad. When the GAA finishes, if you’re ok before that ends then you’re not doing too bad”.

Culbert felt it was important for Bridge Utd to hit the ground running this season. “You have to take very game as it comes, the Clare league is very competitive and with the teams coming up, Coole FC, Tulla Utd and Kilrush Rangers, they are all good soccer teams, we know what they’re bringing up is quality. You do have to take each game and aim for three points in the first game”.

Beaten Cup finalists in 2015 and 2017, that was the closest the club’s first team has come to silverware in recent seasons. They will be eager to mount a memorable run in the coming Clare Cup, Mark acknowledged, “Any honours at all that’s up for grabs you want to be competing and have a realistic challenge of winning them”.

Over the intervening seven years, the gap has widened between them and the top clubs, the reason for which is hard to explain.

“I’d love to give you one specific answer but I can’t, that’s what we felt coming in as a management team that we had slipped back a bit, I was playing myself during the time. Getting the attitude and the right training mentality is very important and to be properly challenging hard and training for every single game. For whatever reason I don’t know what happened, it was a culmination of lots of different things. The main aim for our first season was to get that back and edge back towards closer to the top teams”.

Bridge Utd A:
Management: Mark Culbert (manager), Trevor Noonan, Sean Fitzgerald, Albert Finnin
Joint Captains: Jonathan Downes & Alan Mulready
Key Player: Alan Mulready
One to Watch: Mikey Carr
Fresh blood: Paul Corry, Ronan Tuohy, Jay Whyte, Luke Woodrow (signed from Tulla Utd), Eoin Keenan (signed from Ennis Town FC).
Departures Gate: Jason Loughnane (travelling)

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