Cockhill Celtic have won the last five Donegal News USL League Cup finals - and Gavin Cullen’s side are desperate to hold onto their crown.
Cockhill face Letterkenny Rovers on Saturday in the final at Maginn Park (kick-off 6pm) in the first of two crunch games in a five-day period between the USL’s big two, who clash in a Four Lanterns Ulster Senior League play-off at Bonagee on Wednesday evening.
Cullen’s hand has been considerably weakened of late, but the former Finn Harps net minder remains confident that his men can overcome something of a slump. Cockhill have lost League games to Derry and Letterkenny in the last couple of weeks, while Rovers had the edge in the Knockalla Caravans Cup final between the two.
“The hunger has always stayed with us and you don’t get to the latter stages of these competitions without that winning mentality,” Cullen said.
“This season has been more testing. Until January we were brilliant; as good as I’ve ever seen from us at this level.
“We lost Garbhan Friel and Mark Coyle and then we picked up a few injuries. It spiralled from there. We played Galway United in the EA Sports Cup and from that game until the following Sunday we were down five players.
“That included Ryan Varma, who done his medial ligaments and Jimmy Bradley, who broke his leg. That was our starting midfield pairing.”
Bradley played a role in Sunday’s 1-0 loss to Letterkenny at Leckview Park, a defeat that saw Rovers force a play-off, but the 2016/17 USL Player of the Year seems unlikely to be ready for Saturday evening’s game.
Laurence Toland, who injured shoulder ligaments in the defeat to Derry, is another who looks set to miss out, while Kieran McLaughlin, Paul McDermott and Derek Doherty remain absent.
“I can’t see any of them being back,” Cullen said.
“We put Jimmy in for the last ten minutes and probably shouldn’t have,”
The fact that Cockhill - the USL’s serial winners over the last handful of seasons - will face Rovers again in a few days’ time won’t alter Cullen’s thinking, although he concedes that two recent losses to the Cathedral town men has perhaps shifted the pendulum somewhat.
“Winning the Knockalla Cup final gave them a lot of belief,” Cullen.
“It had been a while since they beat us. That definitely gave them a lift and gave them momentum. Sunday showed that. It’s probably given them momentum, but we prepare the same for every game and games between us are generally tight affairs.
“Even when we play the likes of Harps and Galway in the Cup competitions, we go in with the belief that we can win.
“We have the players capable of winning us matches and we want to win every single game - Saturday will be no different.
“The League is more important, of course it is, but the way the last couple of weeks have gone, we cannot afford to just wait to Wednesday. It can’t change the way we think. We don’t have the personnel to do that anyway.”
Cullen and Cockhill were four minutes from securing the draw they needed on Sunday to be crowned champions, when Steve Okakpo-Emeka struck a brilliant winner for Rovers.
Cullen said: “It was a difficult one to concede at that stage. But I never felt that we were over the line and, to be fair, I don’t think we done enough to win it. I always felt that they’d get a chance and Stevie took it very well.
“It’s a good end to the season for the League with big games between the top two teams in the country, although familiarity doesn’t always bring the best out in the games.”