Gary Baird admits he sometimes struggles to believe Harryville Homers’ meteoric rise to the very top of junior football circles in Northern Ireland.
The Wakehurst-based side are preparing for their third successive appearance in junior football’s showpiece event when they take on Rosemount Rec in Monday’s IFA Irish Junion Cup final.
For Baird, whose links with the club date back a decade, including six full seasons after leaving Ballymena United, it has been a remarkable journey.
“If someone had suggested to me five years ago that we would achieve what we have, it would have been very difficult to believe,” Gary told Times Sport.
“Our first priority at that time was to try and win the league - we were always the bridesmaid to Carniny at that stage.
“The club generally didn’t enter the Junior Cup - we always entered the Junior Shield which we thought we had a better chance of doing well in - but when we got our suspension from the Shield a few years ago, it forced our hand in a way to have a go at the Junior Cup.
“The first year we reached the final, I remember the quarter-final when we played Woodvale at Wakehurst.
“That was when the Homers really started to draw big crowds. There were hundreds around the pitch that day - I even remember seeing my granny cheering!
“We were well beaten by Strathroy Harps in the final that year - the occasion maybe got to us a wee bit - but we were complete novices and it was a massive learning experience for us.
“We came back with a bigger squad and trained harder and longer last season and it paid off - to win every trophy we entered was an amazing achievement.
“One thing we have noticed this year is that our run in the Junior Cup has been very tough because other teams have been wanting a crack at us as the holders.
“We’ve played a number of Belfast teams who have been strong but possibly the toughest of the lot was beating Kilrea 1-0 in the round before the quarter-final.”
Gary - who scored Homers’ goal from the penalty spot in the semi-final win over Lower Shankill - admits that the exertions of a long season are starting to take their toll on the squad but is confident they have enough left to push for more honours.
“We haven’t played that well in recent weeks, certainly not as well as we’re capable of, but we still won the games.
“There is a terrific never-say-die attitude that has got us through some difficult games.”
At 28, and with Irish League experience under his belt, Baird is now considered one of Homers’ senior players and he admits: “It does bring a bit of pressure to help keep the younger players on the right line in games.
“But you have to remember that you were that age yourself once and people make mistakes - they’re only human.”