The new season kicked off with great confidence as Aquinas teams sought to build on the achievements of the previous year. Before the season began Pascal Donnelly and Martin McNally took a team made up of the under 16s and under 15s over to England to play three matches in three days against Rushden and Diamonds, whom we beat 3-2 despite being 2-0 down at one stage, Norwich, 1-1 and Northampton 1-1. It was all a bit of fun, and a lot of experience.
In addition, there was early success for the club at under 12, who collected the Derryhill Sports and Community Group Plate with a 2-0 win over Rathfern. The winning squad was Andrew Sweeney, Jack Lavery, Phillip Mellon, Stephen McGrath, Ronan O’Kane, Adam Greer, Gerry Bogue, James McKee, John Porter, Matt Murdoch, Michael Webb, Damien Chesser, Andrew Keenan, Donal Cummings and David Carson.
The new season saw a new chapter in the club’s history, with the club’s first ever under 9 team. Managed by Denis Kelly, Michael Brown and Bruce Kelly, the team played in the Castlereagh league. The first league match by an Aquinas under 9 team resulted in a tremendous 9-3 victory. The league split halfway through into two divisions. Aquinas, unfortunately, had to make do with the lower division. On the other hand, playing teams of equal talent and ability, we won the division with three games to spare and the team was given a guard of honour onto the pitch by the Inver Colts in the next match.
The league winning squad was Simon Markey, Conor McGuigan, Conor Leonard, Marco Abbate, Ciaran ferguson, Chris McMenemy, Matt Carson, Patrick O’Boyle, Hugh O’ Connor, Jordan Kelly, Kevin McGovern, Sean McGloin, John Keenan, Matt Hughes, Peter Morgan and Niall Brown.
The under 10s under the guidance of Seamus McLarnon, Sam McMenemy and Brian McCrea got off to a flying start, a flying middle and a flying finish. Dungoyne was the only team that could keep up with them for most of the season, but even they were no match when it counted with Aquinas taking four of the six points available between them. The league was won with relative ease and the under 10 trophy remained with Aquinas.
The team performed well in the NIBFA cup getting to the later stages, but, unfortunately, fell at the first round, and against all the odds, in the South Belfast cup. The side, missing a couple of key players, was caught a bit by surprise and, although there was only one goal in it, it was not ours, and the cup run ended before it had a chance to begin.
Nonetheless, it was a spectacular first year in the league. The league winning squad was Jack McCrea, Jack Hamill, Niall Dorman, Harry Reid, Conor Quigg, Fintan McBride, Conall Kelly, Hugh O’Reilly, Mark Cummings, Andrew Smyth, Rory Finnegan,Niall Quinn, Conor McKeague, Conal Cahill, Ben Matthews, Conor McCann, Gavin Walsh.
That’s not to say that the double was not achieved! They say its hard to defend a championship. It might bother Jose Mourhinjo, but it did not faze Stevie, Phil or Garry. Despite a shock defeat to their arch rivals and, if the truth be told, only viable challengers, Dungoyne, in the opening match of the season, due, as above, to the absence of several players, the under 11s soon got into their stride, stringing together win after win in emphatic and merciless fashion. With Dungoyne beaten in the other two meetings, Aquinas strode to a comfortable four point winning margin to retain their championship from under 10.
At under 10, the team had come unstuck in the cup. Stevie, Phil and Garry were determined that history would not repeat itself at under 11. Nothing was taken for granted, no base was left uncovered. The planning and tactics paid dividends and the team glided effortlessly to the South Belfast final at Blanchflower against Glentoran. The game started well with Aquinas looking as if they might score every time they went up the field and rattled in two goals with comparative ease. On the other hand, failure to deal with high balls into our penalty area provided Glentoran with a lifeline and, it has to be said, our generosity produced a 2-2 half time scoreline.
However, in the second half Aquinas started to turn the screw. The football began to flow and we gradually took possession of the game. Three more Aquinas goals, without reply wrapped the contest up. The Glentoran manager, grey suited and a rose in his lapel, won the laurels for fashion, but we collected the cup. The double was done.
The big question now was could we go on a do an unprecedented treble, as in the meantime, the under 11s had also powered themselves into the final of the NIBFA cup, which they had won the previous year. The final took place on the evening of Tuesday 24 May 2005, the day before Liverpool staged the greatest come back in UEFA history to win the European Cup for a fifth time, but that’s neither here nor there and I do not know how it managed to slip into an account of Aquinas’s year!
There was a party atmosphere as the buses pulled out of Windsor Avenue to take us to Moyola Park in Castledawson for the final against Trojans from Derry. The team travelled first, of course, departing about 5.30pm. The supporters bus, full of players and managers from other teams followed on. Not even, the minor problem of an overheating radiator could dampen the party spirits.
Unfortunately, though, it meant that we were arriving at the ground five minutes into the match. As the supporters were entering the ground a loud cheer was heard. Someone had scored. The more energetic supporters started to run to find out what had happened. Aquinas had scored. 1-0 five minutes into the game. Alas, it started to go wrong from then. Although we had chances and played well throughout the first half, we gifted Trojans two of the softest goals that they’ll ever score and half time came with us behind 2-1.
The big question now was how would a team not used to being behind respond to the pressure in the second half. Unfortunately, whether it was the lack of proper competitive football for several weeks before the final or tiredness after along season, in truth it was Trojans who upped the tempo in the second half. Aquinas chances were few and far between and when the ball was fed through to the front men, the Trojan defence had the measure of them for the most part. To add to our woes, a badly played ball was delivered to Trojans twenty five yards or so out from our goals. Their player hoofed it from there into the top of the Aquinas net. Any chance of a come back was now gone, and the game ended in victory for Trojans 3-1.
Nonetheless, the double had been bagged and another highly successful season had been recorded by the team. The double winning and NIBFA final squad was John Evans, Mark Salters, John Baillie, Ryan Murray, Peter Mooney, Conor O’Neill, Garrett Cullen, Conor Brown, Brendan Ferguson, Ben Leonard, Ronan McGrady, Matthew McClean, James Magee, John Doherty, Mark Gribben, Marc Gribben, Rory McKeown and James Lindsay.
The under 12s found themselves in division one of their league. This Aquinas team, managed by Noel McKee, Paul Cummings and Damien Chesser, was one of the strongest in the division. Although they lost out in the battle to win the first division, they fought off their rivals to eventually finish runners up and win promotion to the premiership for 2005/2006.
The battle for second place was fought very keenly by three teams throughout the year and the fact that we came out on top is a worthy achievement. Its Aquinas, rather than one of the others who battled with us fiercely throughout the season, who will play in the top flight next year. The promotion winning squad was Daniel Kerr, Damien Chesser, Andrew Keenan, Ronan O’Kane, Donal Cummings, James McKee, Stephen McGrath, Adam Greer, Michael webb, Matthew Murdoch, John Porter, Gerry Bogue, Jack Lavery, Andrew Sweeney, Ben Johnston and David Carson.
The under 13s started out with a convincing victory in their first match. However, with the loss of some key players, in truth the team struggled against very keen competition for most of the year. That’s not to say that it was all doom and gloom. There were notable results and performances, and if not many three points were notched up, nonetheless some were, and were enjoyed all the more for that reason. As always, in the face of adversity and difficulty, the Aquinas spirit never faltered and the black and blue was worn with pride.
Similarly, the under 14s experienced a fairly frustrating year. The heady days of 2003/2004 when they won the league with ease were long gone. The move up to the higher division coupled with the loss of several key players in the close season severely diminished the impact that the team had this year. However, as above, that’s not to say that there was a lack of effort. Anything but, with an unflagging commitment given by the men in black and blue all year.
For the under 15s, it was, to slightly revise a good old football cliché, a season of two halves. For much of the first half of the season Pascal and Martin’s team, no matter how hard they tried or how inspired they played, they could not record a victory. Instead, frustrating one goal defeats after dominating most of the play seemed to be the order of the day for them. However, this sort of bad luck cannot last forever, and the second half of the season brought a series of victories on the run. Indeed, while some points were dropped with draws, defeats were few and far between at this stage in the league. If they can pick up in 2005/2006 where they left off in 2004/2005, who knows what might be possible.
It was a roller coaster year for Noel Murphy’s and Des Brennan’s under 16s. Noel’s Aquinas managerial career started at under 10 with a spirited, headlong dash for the title, pitted against one viable challenger. Ultimately, the team fell at the final furlong, having to be content with second place. At under 16, it was very much a case of déjà vu, another frantic dash through the season for the title. It was us against Dungoyne virtually all year for the league. Unfortunately, history repeated itself, the title once again eluded Noel and the team finished second.
The year began well, with convincing wins and the discovery, in Paul Grogan, of a natural goal scoring talent. In the early part of the season, we ran up wins against our likely rivals, Cliftonville and Dungoyne and played out a draw with Newbridge. Unfortunately, we had a bad day at the office at Ormeau Park against Rosario. Two cheap first half goals and other difficulties left Aquinas with a mountain to climb in the second half. Paul Grogan pulled one back, but an equaliser could not be found and three valuable points were lost. It would be a result that would come back to haunt us.
Notwithstanding, the players picked themselves up, dusted themselves down and got back to winning ways to pull us back into the reckoning. On a cold and wet day at Blanchflower, with the business end of the season on us, we struggled against Hawthorne Boys. Finally, late into the second half, Paul Grogan got half a chance and did what Paul does with half chances, he scored. It should have been enough, but we took our eyes of the prize, the defence went to sleep and conceded a very poor goal. It could have been worse a couple of minutes later when Hawthorne, similarly, caught us napping and put the ball in the net. The referee ruled it out for offside and one point was saved. Thankfully, Hawthorne went on to be the jinx team for all of our rival too, similarly holding them to draws.
This meant that we went into our last game with one simple statistic. Win and Aquinas were champions. It took place on a Tuesday evening at Strangford. A massive Aquinas crowd had turned up. The last Aquinas under 16 captain to lift the league trophy was the current coach, Des Brennan. It had been a long wait for glory at under 16.
The game started edgily. We knew the price of mistakes, Newbridge, our opponents were determined to stop us beating Dungoyne to the title. As had happened so often during the season, when we slipped up, we gave them an awful goal. No team will ever score a goal like that again. Unfortunately, that’s not the point. Newbridge got it that night and suddenly we were chasing a game we needed to win for the ultimate prize in league soccer.
The game started to have a depressingly familiar feel to it. Newbridge had come to spoil rather than play football, with five across the back. Attack after attack from Aquinas was smothered by weight of numbers behind the ball. The league campaign was petering out, when suddenly that man again, Paul, got his chance, saw goal and took it. 1-1. However, 1-1, while it kept our challenge alive was not enough, we needed to win. Aquinas upped the tempo, going to 3-4-3 and pushing men forward more and more and taking more and more desperate risks. With each Aquinas attack, the volume on the touchline got higher and higher, supporters willing the ball into the net.
It was to be one of those nights. Having penalised ourselves unnecessarily, having dragged ourselves back into it by sheer will power, despite losing key players during the game, the extra goal we needed, the winner, never came. The final whistle sounded. Deflation. Awful, stomach churning, sickening deflation. It was over. We now needed Dungoyne to trip up against bottom of the table St. Mary’s two days later at Ormeau Park. They didn’t. Noel and his team had come so near to bridging the 34 year gap since an under 16 Aquinas team won the league, as had other under 16s throughout the years, but the brutal fact is that the gap remains.
The cup was something of an anticlimax after that and would, similarly, prove disappointing in trying circumstances. After a last minute winner against Newbridge, we were drawn in the semi final against SOPYC. The script could have been written for us with the frustrations of this year in mind. As usual, we gifted them. Not just one goal this time, but two, just to make it interesting. Similarly, in true style, Paul pulled one back and we battled and battled for the equaliser to keep us in the tournament.
Things were slightly more difficult this time. An Aquinas player was punched in the first half, but the referee and the linesman did not see it. They saw it on the space shuttle, but there you have it! On the other hand, both the referee and lineman did manage to spot some infringement, that nobody else, not even the SOPYC players who made no protest about anything, did not see, to deny Aquinas a legitimate equaliser. So be it, its all history now, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t wrankle.
The success of 2003/2004 set an immense challenge for all Aquinas teams in 2004/2005. No-one in the club wanted to go back to the old days of mediocrity. Last year’s success was something for all involved to try and build on. This, we successfully did in 2004/2005, winning four trophies, one double and recording five top two finishes in eight age groups.
2004/2005 is now over. Its part of Aquinas history, a glorious part of an increasingly glorious period for the club. The challenge for the year ahead is precisely what it was going into 2004/2005, namely, to build on the achievements of that year, to match them and, if possible, to better them. Maybe we will do this, maybe we won’t, however, with Aquinas, everyone, managers, coaches, players and officials will do their damnest to carry on the success story that the twentyfirst century has been for the club and will give it their all. Come on, the black and blues!