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Mullen is keeping it local

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

NEWRY City AFC have strengthened their squad with even further additions following last week's signing of goalkeeper Stephen Maguire.

Caolan Gray is a player that will excite many within our football community as he is a player that knows where the net is.

Having scored 58 goals in the 2015-16 season for Cleary Celtic and impressing in his brief spell with Windmill Stars before going to America, he was a player Newry manager Darren Mullen had on his radar and the Newry boss is delighted he has finally got his man.

Well, men actually, as he has also snapped up Ruairi Cunningham, or Jackie as he is more commonly known.

Cunningham has been a top defender for Windmill Stars and Rockview United in the Carnbane League over recent seasons, and he has also put pen to paper for Newry City.

"I am always looking for the best local talent and the two boys have been standout players in the Carnbane League over the past three or four years and they have earned their chance," said Mullen.

"I spoke to both of them and they seem keen on trying to test themselves at a higher level and I feel that both men will be well capable of playing at Championship level.

"Caolan scored 58 goals in one season of the Carnbane League a few years back and any player that can score that amount of goals deserves an opportunity, so I am looking forward to see him shooting in a Newry shirt.

"The same with Jackie, he is a really strong defender and is a real threat at set-pieces. I have tried to sign both lads a few times but thankfully they have agreed to give it a go and I am looking forward to welcoming them for pre-season." And Mullen has arranged for a trio of Premiership sides to provide a testing warm-up for the newly promoted side's return to the Championship.

They will travel to the plastic pitch at Solitude against Cliftonville on Tuesday, July 18 (7.45pm kick off), while Irish Cup semi-finals Glenavon will provide the first opposition of the 2017-18 season at the Showgrounds two days later (7.30pm).

The highlight of the pre-season build-up could be the derby clash away to Warrenpoint Town, who have just returned to the Premiership, on Saturday, July 29 (3pm).

City's first friendly will be on Thursday, July 13 against Dundalk's Muirhevnamor (7.45pm), while games have been arranged away to Cherry Orchard (Saturday, July 22, 2.30pm) and at home to Portadown side Hanover (Tuesday, July 25, 7.30pm).

They are all tough games and Mullen insists that he demands a tough pre-season in order to hit the ground running come the start of the Championship.

"It is something I have done since our first year back into football and sometimes I've been criticised for it because some people think our pre-season games are too tough," said Mullen.

"But we need to be playing at a high level and hit the ground running in our first game of the Championship and the only way we are going to be able to do that is to play top opposition that forces us into making mistakes, which we can learn from.

"There is no point in playing opposition that we can beat 4-0 and then think we are a wonderful team and then get found out in the Championship because we c a n't live with the tempo or quality of play.

"Pre-season games have been purposely picked to ensure that we are going to be tested and like I said last year, I don't care if we lose every pre-season game as long as we are ready for our first League game." Mullen says that he has his eyes on one or two more players that he hopes to sign over the next five days as he hopes to know his full squad before pre-season begins and he feels that the signing of a third goalkeeper gives Newry City adequate cover for the forthcoming campaign.

"It is what we need, as while we have a good squad already, we needed to add some players to it and the players I have brought in are quality players," Mullen said.

"We now have competition in every position and with Mark Marron and Pete Murphy gone we needed another keeper in to challenge Kieran Gordon and young Jack Heaney.

"Stephen Maguire has played Championship football and he is a Newry lad, which is a huge plus." With a bigger squad comes more selection headaches for the manager but he is confident that the players will rise to his challenge and he warns that no ones position is safe.

"Even the players from last season know that they are not guaranteed their place in the Championship," said the Newry manager.

"We are starting off the pre-season with a clean slate and whoever impresses the most and wants it the most will be starting the games.

"It is not going to be easy but we have always had the same attitude to pre-season - if they impress then no matter who they are they will start. It is up to the lads coming in to impress early on and if they are good enough then they will play." And Mullen hopes that the Championship might see a return to Friday night football at the Showgrounds, especially against teams such as Lurgan Celtic and Loughgall.

"We have always asked teams if they want to play us on a Friday night because we know we will get a bigger crowd and a better atmosphere but it is obviously a two-way thing as the other team has to agree to it," said Mullen.

"We are hoping some of the teams closer to us might agree to Friday night games because it will probably suit in reverse as they will likely get a bigger crowd on a Friday night too. If we can get a Friday night game then we will be glad of it but even on Saturdays our fans have been great and we outnumbered quite a lot of the teams last season.

"Success brings a lot of things with it, not only new players but also new fans and I think anyone that has seen us play over the past four years would agree that we play nice football that is good to watch and we h a v e n't be afraid to mix it up when needs be.

"It is something we will continue to do and we will play a style of football that has served us well and hopefully the fans will enjoy it and a few new fans can come along and witness it too."

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