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RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON; BORDER CUP SECOND SEMI-FINAL: SHANKILL UNITED v SPORT & LEISURE, TONIGHT 7.30pm Leeman loving life in hotseat where he belongs.

Byline: MARTIN MAWHINNEY

IF SHANKILL UNITED manage to overcome all the odds and win this year's Border Cup, then joint manager Tommy Leeman, for his part, will dedicate the victory to the committee that were so quick to welcome him back with open arms.

The formerWelders boss remembers only too well how his former employers took him back on board after six short weeks last season, after he tried his hand at managing then Irish Premier League club Larne.

As it happened, circumstances at Inver Park did not turn out the way Leeman had hoped and he was walking through the exit door within 17 days of accepting the post.

Thankfully, though, his time at Shankill, where he had around 14 games undefeated, was valued by his employers, and they weren't long in asking for his services once again, alongside co-manager Bertie McMinn.

Leeman recalled: "I took the job (at Larne) around Christmas last year, and was told this was going to happen and that was going to happen, but none of it did.

"It was an inferno, a hornet's nest, and there were all sorts of internal politics that I didn't want to get into. There was no point in me being there when it was clear the supporters didn't want me there - they wanted somebody from Larne.

"I left Larne, and was out of football for about three or four weeks, when I got a call from the Shankill chairman Jackie Pollock, asking me if I would like to come back to the club.

"I was delighted to go back to Shankill, and once I got back we didn't lose another match - though that obviously wasn't just down to me.

"I am very grateful to the club for bringing me back in, because they could easily have just let Bertie get on with the job without me. I owe them a great deal of gratitude - and hopefully I can pay them back with a trophy."

The possibility of Shankill having their names engraved below that of last years' Border Cup Abbey Villa, was given an extra boost with Dunmurry Rec's departure in the other semi-final last week.

Goals from Kilmore Rec pair Gary Kennedy and John Young have ensured that there is not one Premier Section side remaining one of the Amateur League's most hotly disputed knockout tournaments - and that has to be encouraging news for the remaining sides.

Leeman said: "It is a real incentive for us, but it's like everything - you can only beat what is put down in front of you.

"I think a lot of Premier Section teams met each other early doors, and the same happened with 1A and 1B teams. But when Downpatrick were put out by Kilmore on penalty, it was a shock.

"We will be massive underdogs against Sport and Leisure in the semi-final, and we will be massive underdogs if we get to play Kilmore in the final.

"But anything from here on in will be a bonus. We are just happy to be out of 2A."

Such a statement seems more than a little modest, given the almost faultless start that the boys from the Hammer Sports Complex have made to the season.

Save for a 1-0 defeat against Lisburn Rangers early on in the campaign, Shankill have gone through the league up to now without dropping any other points along the way.

Sitting in second place, they have already opened up a valuable seven-point gap on the chasing pack, and are just four points off leaders Downshire YM, with three games in hand.

Yet Leeman continues to play down any suggestion that his team are going to continue the tradition of clubs who make the step up from 2A and find themselves promoted from 1B to 1A within the course of a season.

He said: "There are some good teams in our league. Ballynahinch United seem to have got their stall in order now, and beat Lisburn Rangers 4-1 on Saturday.

Bloomfield are a tough side too - we beat them 3-2 and we were very happy with that result. Downshire have been the real surprise package this year.

"Anything above and beyond a fourth place finish would be brilliant for us. A lot of people have been saying it's only a matter of Shankill turning up to win a game, but that's just not true."

If messrs Leeman and McMinn harbour ambitions for competing in 1A next season, then tonight's semi-final will provide the perfect test of their credentials.

That said, Shankill have already overcome Sport and Leisure's league rivals Ards Rangers in past rounds of this season's Border Cup.

Indeed, it was arguably fellow 1B club Shorts who gave them their toughest examination of all, bringing their quarterfinal to the nail-biting climax of a penalty shootout.

Yet Sport and Leisure could prove to be yet another step up. In Division 1A terms, it is difficult to predict just how they will fare this season, given that they have only played seven games in the league compared to the 12 and 13 played by many of their rivals.

Though, needless to say, all bodes well for them, as they occupy sixth position despite this huge deficit, and they will have been buoyed by an impressive weekend win by former 1A pacesetters Rathfern Rangers.

On the face of it, whichever team wins tonight will have the potential to go on and complete a potential league and cup double.

But, as both club's managers would point out, we are not even half way through the season, and there are plenty more twists and turns ahead.

Not to mention the fact that a certain rampant Kilmore Rec side will have their own say on the issue.

I am very grateful for Shankill bringing me back to the club. Hopefully I can pay back the favour by winning a trophy

CAPTION(S):

HE'S GOT IT Shankill boss Tommy Leeman won the Intermediate Cup whilst at Welders
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 25, 2008
Words:995
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