Dean Smith: Same qualities that helped Loughgall achieve success will get us through tricky period
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After a superb start to life back in the top-flight in which they picked up 14 points from their first nine matches, including a famous victory over defending Premiership champions Larne, the Villagers have now lost six of the last nine league games with Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Dungannon Swifts a third on the trot.
Despite that, they remain very comfortable in eighth and are just one point behind red-hot Glenavon in what could be a fascinating bottom-half battle with Carrick Rangers also a single point adrift of Loughgall in ninth.
Smith’s side have scored more league goals than all of their bottom-six rivals and Coleraine in their first campaign back in the top-flight, but will turn their attention to cup action this evening when they host Portadown with a Mid-Ulster Cup final spot against Dungannon up for grabs.
They lifted this trophy in 2019/20, defeating Glenavon 3-2 in the final, and Smith says the mental toughness of the playing group he has assembled is their greatest asset.
"The players are bitterly disappointed,” he said after Saturday’s defeat. “They're really down because they believe some of the (referee) decisions were maybe poor, but from our point of view it's about sticking together and the best thing about this club is the group we have.
"We've shown many times that maybe when we shouldn't have won a game we did because we're so mentally strong and together. That mental toughness and togetherness remains."
Neighbours Portadown currently sit top of the Championship as they look to immediately bounce back to the top-tier following last season’s relegation.
They defeated Newington 5-1 at Shamrock Park on Friday evening, bringing their goal tally to 37 in 17 games – the league’s best record – with Ryan Mayse netting 10 times following his summer move from Dungannon.
The pair’s last meeting was a Boxing Day Championship derby clash in 2019 when Adam Salley and Lee Bonis, both now plying their trade in the top-flight, scored in a 2-0 win for Portadown.
A lot has changed since then on many fronts and Smith is looking to seize the opportunity of competing for more silverware.
"It's the semi-final of a major competition and we want to get into the final,” he added. “We'll approach it in the right manner and we know it'll be a very difficult game against a team I'd call a Premiership one playing in the Championship with some very good players at that club, which has a lot of resources behind it. They'll go in confident just like us.
"You want to win every game. We'll approach this game in the same manner as we would for every other game. It's the chance to get to a cup final and regardless of what level you play at, you don't get many chances to win cups. It's one we certainly take pride in and we'll want to get to the final."