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Benburb: The story of the club that sparked an incredible run to defy the odds

At the start of December, prospects were looking bleak for Benburb’s U20s. After being served a three-point deduction, the club found themselves third bottom of the West of Scotland Football Development League Conference B after six league games with five points amid a winless run.

However, sterling form at the turn of the year, including nine league games unbeaten and only one defeat catapulted the New Tinto Park club up the table to conclude the season as champions.

Martin Montgomery returned to the Govan side at the beginning of December after a spell at Cumnock Juniors and was tasked with revitalising the club’s fortunes.

The U20s coach admitted that many would not have foreseen what the Chookie Hens achieved, but heaped praise on the players he had at his disposal.

He said: “When I was contacted to come back into the club, I think even the biggest optimistic would not have seen us go on to win the league from that position.

“However, I had a very good group of players with so much quality and the mission for me was to get them onside and understand what it was that we were trying to achieve.”

Montgomery, who was previously the Head of Youth Academy offered an insight into his style of play and how quickly the squad adapted to a different formation.

He continued: “The boys had been playing in a narrow and direct 4-4-2, whereas I prefer a 4-3-3 which allows me to implement wingers and have the players crossing more into the box.

“I brought that in very early doors and thankfully they bought into my system quicker than anticipated.”

Montgomery’s tenure started with two defeats, however, what followed was an unbeaten streak in all competitions stretching 19 games, but although the implementation of a new style of play was almost instantaneous, the belief that they could achieve something special took time to materialise:

“My first competitive match was against Pollok, who were top of the league at the time and we lost narrowly due to defensive errors which was quite frustrating.

“We then lost to Renfrew in the semi-final of the PlayerData League Cup, which probably came too early in terms of the demand we were looking for.

“Not long after that, we were away to East Fife in the Challenge Cup and at half-time we were two goals down, but we scored with a last-minute winner and I think that was when we realised things had turned around really quickly.”

The Chookie Hens began to transfer newfound confidence into the Conference and earned their first consecutive league victories with visits to Ashfield and St Roch’s, before a 5-2 victory against Giffnock, a team who were unbeaten in seven league matches.

On reflection, Montgomery believes that result was when it dawned that this was a squad that had the ability to achieve.

He explained: “That was the point where it really sank in and we realised that we were more than good enough to compete with the best teams in the league and win it.”

For the vast majority of the season, Benburb had seven games in hand over teams who were involved in the title race and the coach emphasised that the navigation of a congested fixture list was a massive challenge:

“It was monumental and every game felt like a cup final in that there was such a fine margin for error.

“In all my years in football, never before have I experienced having so few games to go in a title race, knowing that you can only realistically afford to lose one, while the teams above have completed all their games, so there was a huge pressure there.

“And asking a group of players to continuously win, find that level of consistency at such a young age and overcome that was nothing short of exceptional.”

The New Tinto Park club continued an unprecedented run of form with victories ranging from 4-2, 4-1 to 6-0 scorelines against Easterhouse, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy and Vale of Clyde respectively to go into their final three matches in fourth place and nine points from title glory. 

The U20s coach provided an insight into the message he relayed to his players.

He continued: “We always held that belief that if we started winning, we would climb the table and we were still involved in cup competitions, reaching a final and semifinal, so it was simply to take one game at a time.

“But it did get to the point with three games to go, where we had to be realistic in that we had given ourselves this opportunity, so our eyes were very much on the bigger picture and whether we could push it over the line.”

Montgomery’s men clinched the league title with a 5-0 victory over Kirkintilloch Rob Roy to finish the season on 45 points, two better than second-place Pollok, an achievement that the manager described as one of the best in his career to date:

“There was an element of relief, but to come from the position we were in, it was fantastic and certainly one of my best moments in football so far.”

The award of being crowned winners of Conference B was the WOSFDL Championship final against Irvine Meadow at Broadwood Stadium after edging past Thorn Athletic.

Montgomery expressed his confidence that his players would cope with the pressure and engrave their names in history.

He explained: “Irvine Meadow were an excellent side and we knew their strengths, but what probably helped us was that we had played the other conference winners over the season in one way or another, so that gave us optimism.

“Also, when it came to the final, there were no distractions and additional pressure coupled with our belief that we could get the job done.

“It is very pleasing to know that we are the first West of Scotland champions, we will always be the first team to have achieved that and nobody can take that away from those group of players.”

On his vision for next season and beyond, the title-winning manager concluded by detailing how his focus will be on utilising Benburb’s academy setup:

“Our under 18s was a squad that I coached for ten years and this year they won their league and also a cup trophy, so they showed that they are more than capable of coming in and competing.

“I used five or six from that level on a regular basis last season and they were a massive part of our success.

“Our preseason has just started and we have more than a dozen of last year’s under 18s with us and we have had a couple progress to the first team, so the youth pathway at Benburb is looking the strongest it has been.”

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