Loan Ranger Luke McNicholas looking for further honours

It was a year of contrasting fortunes for young Sligo Rovers ‘keeper Luke McNicholas as a loan spell with Finn Harps saw him largely used as an unused substitute before then coming back to Rovers and ending up playing in their European matches and is now in the midst of a successful loan spell with Cliftonville.

“It was surely, a lot of things happened that I didn’t expect and then some things didn’t happen the way I thought they would. I was very lucky to play the few games for Rovers during the season given that both keepers were injured but then the loan spell with Finn Harps didn’t work out the way I would have hoped as I thought I would have played in more games. But that’s football and things don’t always work out the way you want.”

For McNicholas the games against FH from Iceland in the Europa Conference League were an expected bonus coming after the end of his spell with Harps and as he looked for another loan move:

“That was unbelievable and when I went back to the Showgrounds I never thought I would end up playing in those games. At the start of the season I had went on loan with Harps and then ended up coming back to Rovers halfway during the season. The plan was that I would go back out on loan and that club would find somewhere for me for the rest of the season. Then both keepers picked up injuries, Richard Brush got injured in training and then Ed McGinty got injured in the game against Longford Town and I came on in that match. Playing in Europe despite the result was class. I loved it, the whole experience of playing a team from another country and travelling to Iceland. It makes you want to do it again and again and gives you that drive to have those opportunities again.”

In a dramatic and action packed Bet McLean League Cup Final in March in Windsor Park Cliftonville beat Coleraine 4-3 after extra time meaning a first ever senior winner’s medal for McNicholas. A winner’s medal had looked unlikely given that Cliftonville trailed 2-0 with half an hour to go yet equalised in stoppage time to take the game into extra time making the occasion even more memorable for McNicholas:

“Yeah that’s it, it seemed unlikely that we could come back especially against a team like Coleraine who have such a good defensive record. But with half an hour to go and even though we were two down you still had that hope that we could turn it around and when Paul (O’Neill) got the equaliser in the last minute well you couldn’t write it! For a game to finish 4-3 in that manner especially a final is madness like. You don’t see high scoring finals such as that game come around too often. Cup finals are usually tight, tense affairs and this game was anything but!”

This was the first cup final played on a Sunday in Northern Ireland and it proved to be a great success not only producing a high scoring game but also a large attendance with over 11,000 present with the supporters making for a special atmosphere.

“It was class, the atmosphere was unreal, there was over 11,000 there and the noise was like nothing else I had played in front of before especially when we scored our goals. When we scored and the way in which we did the noise was unreal, it was a great experience. The whole experience was great; playing on a Sunday afternoon in a class stadium like Windsor park and with the amount of people that were there the ground seemed to be full.”

After the game Cliftonville players and supporters took their newly won trophy back to Solitude for a special celebration in the club’s social club which again was another special moment for McNicholas:

“The party afterwards in Solitude was class. We went back to the social club and the fans were in with us and moments like that are something that you never forget. For me it is my first senior winner’s medal and to be able to celebrate it with our supporters like that meant you could see how much it meant to them as well. It has been some 12 months and I played in Europe for Rovers and have now won the League Cup with Cliftonville. If you had told me that this time last year I wouldn’t have believed you when I was sitting on the bench with Finn Harps.”

Cliftonville are now on course for a domestic double as they remain in contention for the League which concludes this coming Saturday when they take on Glentoran at The Oval. Rivals Linfield host Coleraine at the same time in what promises to be an exciting final day.

“We have to keep going now; we have won the League Cup but still have the League to play for. We can’t rest on our laurels and have to keep to momentum going ahead of Saturday. I was delighted when the clubs agreed to extend the loan as this has been a great experience for me and for me to be able to play in big games like the ones we had and the one we have coming up can only benefit me in the long run.”

To add further to what turned into a memorable year for McNicholas he was also drafted into the Irish U-21 squad an experience he enjoyed greatly and he now looks to take the lows and highs from 2021 and push on further in 2022:

“Yeah another huge positive from the year was being called up to the Irish U-21’s. It was an unbelievable experience. I came in for the game against Montenegro and was involved then for the games against Sweden and Italy. I’m 21 now so that was really my last chance to be involved with the U-21’s.

Luke will be expected to be involved in the squad again in June for internationals against Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia and Italy.

By Keith O’ Dwyer