Sean Connor claims promotion is a 'non-runner' for injury stricken Institute

SEAN CONNOR admits promotion back to the Danske Bank Irish Premiership at the first time of asking for Institute Football Club is a 'non-runner' given his squad's alarming lack of depth.
Institute boss Sean Connor and coach Sean Friars deliver a team talk at Brandywell.Institute boss Sean Connor and coach Sean Friars deliver a team talk at Brandywell.
Institute boss Sean Connor and coach Sean Friars deliver a team talk at Brandywell.

An ill-timed injury crisis on the eve of their opening Irish Championship fixture against Dergview on Saturday which worsened during the match, exposed the frailty and limitations of Connor's squad.

Priced out of a loan move for Derry City midfielder Brendan Barr, who ended up at Ballymena, and an emergency loan deal for Glentoran goalkeeper Rory Brown, Connor went into the new season with limited numbers and an over-reliance on the club's youth players.

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After Saturday's 5-0 defeat to their Co. Tyrone neighbours Connor revealed he had to plan without SEVEN of his original starting XI including his first choice goalkeeper Dylan Doherty due to a combination of Covid related issues and injuries.

Experienced striker and skipper Cormac Burke missed out completely, midfielder Shaun Doherty and defender Oran Brogan all left the field injured in the opening 25 minutes while concussion protocols will rule both Aidan McCauley and Shaun Leppard out of tonight's visit of Ballyclare Comrades to Brandywell.

With 16 year-old debutante 'keeper Joe McConnellogue thrown into the lion's den at Darragh Park, it came as no surprise when a telling stat revealed Institute fielded the youngest team in the entire division on the opening weekend with an average age of 21!

The West Belfast man has moved to temper expectations this season and claims promotion is an unrealistic target as he instead strives for midtable safety.

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"We were seven men down from what would've been our starting XI on Saturday," said the 'Stute boss. "So that's over half the team and mainly defenders or defensive players and experienced players.

"In my 17 years of coaching I've never had as many injuries in such a short period of time. It was a mixture of Covid related issues and injuries which disrupted our preparations," he confirmed.

"If the average age of our starting line-up is the youngest in the league and younger than Queens who are students then that just shows you what we have.

"I've said from the start that our budget doesn't allow me to carry great strength in depth and we're going to have to use under-20 and under-18 players and it's not fair on them. It's okay if you're bringing one or two into the team and integrate them in slowly. We have seven of our key players out who have played all through pre-season - seven!," he stressed.

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"Suddenly if you're bringing loads of young players in at the one time then it's difficult. If you're bringing a young player into a team where the rest of the players have been playing together all year then that's easier for them. But that's a consequence of our budget.

"We lost out on Brendy Barr because Ballymena offered more money. I tried to bring Rory Brown back and the player was in favour of completing a short term loan but we couldn't meet the financial demands of Glentoran.

"When I get my best 11 on the pitch, yes, we're a decent side. But promotion for us this year is a non-runner because we don't have a squad that can sustain a 40 game season, we just don't.

"Aidy McCauley and Shaun Leppard are now out for two weeks as well with concussion protocol so that's another two bodies down. Oran Brogan is probably out for at least a week and (Dylan) Doherty is out for a week to 10 days as well.

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"I said three or four weeks ago that this year was about consolidation and our fans have to understand our squad is tight and if we lose two or three players it weakens our team. When we lose seven it's just impossible.

"We have a young team. We'll develop into a good team but it's going to take time. We have eight players in our squad 19 or under. So it's going to take time but they are all good players. We also have three 17 year-olds in our squad and missing a top keeper with presence in this league is very difficult.

"This hasn't fazed me as I'm experienced enough to get us through this but it's not fair on our young players who are still developing and learning the game. Having said that, they will benefit in the long wrong from it.

"On the positive front, Mikhail Kennedy has started full training and he'll be available for selection in the next three to four weeks. And Seamus Sharkey knows we want him and knows where we are. He just has to make his decision.

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"Everyone at the club would welcome Seamus back with open arms, He's been the one man I've been tracking all summer and I've been trying to be patient.

"I've another option I'm trying to get on loan and I'd love to get both of them here. If you bring in two really good central defenders a lot of our problems disappear."

As 'Stute prepare to host Ballyclare Comrades, who recorded an impressive 5-1 win over highly fancied Ballinamallard at the weekend, Connor is hoping the big Brandywell pitch will be a leveller for his young side against the physicality of the visitors.

"Our home form is something we have to focus on this year to make sure we finish midtable comfortably.

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"We're going to struggle probably away from home like we did on Saturday but hopefully at home at the Brandywell will be a different story where we will try to get it down and play and negate the physicality of the other teams on the bigger pitch but away from home it's going to be difficult.

"Ballyclare are a big team. Like Dergview, Ballyclare are a team of men but we've got to try and use the size of the Brandywell pitch to our advantage to negate their aerial threat."