2008 - 2009

2008/2009 saw the creation of an under 11 Red Star team and big changes in the delivery of mini soccer. Sadly, it also saw the folding of the under 16 Red Star team and the club was unable to field an under 19 team.

Conor McCleave joined the club as the Director of our mini soccer school. A UEFA level B coach, he changed the way in which mini soccer was delivered. With a band of five coaches, Paul Crossey, Brendan McCann, Fra McCann, Marty McNally the younger and Conor Fitzpatrick, coaching was delivered on a uniform basis rather than on a team by team basis as before. Indeed the former teams were abolished and the school was organised on an age basis, six to eight year olds and nines to elevens. In addition, training and the tournament were held on Saturday morning at the Black’s Road second generation pitch.

With a UEFA level B coach in harness, the club applied for IFA accreditation as a mini soccer skills school. Kyle Spiers from the IFA duly came to visit the facility and observe training in action. He was sufficiently impressed to pass our application, with the result that we are now an IFA mini soccer centre.

Returning to the football, some eighty children were involved in mini soccer during the year. A tournament involving six other clubs was held at the start of January 2009, Castle Juniors form Bangor being the winners. An IFA keepy up competition saw Mark Robinson and Cian McDonnell represent Aquinas at the Olympia Leisure Centre pitch at the end of March 2009. Mark came third overall in the competition involving mini soccer centres across Northern Ireland.

The new under ten team, under the guidance of Garry Cullen and Stephen Connolly, and assisted for some months by Mark Macaulay got off to a blistering start sweeping all before them for the first half of the season. Unfortunately, the weather led to fixture havoc in January and the break obviously took the sheen of the team. The second half of the season was more disappointing and initial hopes of the league title quickly faded into a distant memory. Similarly a tough cup draw against league winners Carniny brought the season to a frustrating ending.

Jim Morrison and Mike Gibbons were joined at under 11 by Peter McEvoy. Who? Maxi, I mean. The team got off to a reasonable start but leaked too many points in draws early on and slipped out of the league title running. Nonetheless, the elevens played the beautiful football they showed us in their treble winning year and finished strongly. The treble might have been impossible, but it did not stop the team bringing home the first silverware of the season, when just after Christmas, the won the inaugural Charity Shield, beating Dungoyne The NIBFA experience came to en end on a miserable Saturday morning in February at Boucher. With only ten men, an early injury meant playing most of the match with nine. At the same time, the natural talent of the team kept the score respectable and the experience will stand them in good stead to re-discover the giddy days of under 10 glory.

The cup saw Cliftonville despatched at Black’s Road, 4 – 2 in the first round. Solway Star were next up and the cup run continued with a 2 – 1 win. The semi final was against SOPYC and a convincing 3 – 0 victory saw us through to the final, against Springfield Star. The final itself was played on a black day, weather wise, at Hydebank, Saturday 9 may 2009. The wind howled and the coldest rain imaginable lashed down for most of the morning. Notwithstanding, the under 11s went about their task with resilience. A tight first half saw the teams go in level. However, Aquinas opened it up in the second half with goals from James Smith and a brace from Enda Kelly-McCann. Springfield Star had no response, Aquinas remained too strong and the cup was won. Five trophies in two years for this wonder team of Enda Kelly-McCann, James Carson, Ryan McGuigan, Jack Johnston, Tomasz Muszinski, Peter Webb, Hugh Gibbons, James Smith, Daire McGarvey, Ishmail Osikoya, Daniel Guinness, John Blaney, Frank McCormack, Jake Morrison and Darragh Doherty.

The season saw the Red Star adventure start at under 11 rather than under 12. Colm Keenan bade farewell to mini soccer and with old Grasshopper partner Richard Best set off on league football. Although the team did not gather too many points, (we were trying to make Newcastle supporter Richard feel at home), they did enjoy their football and displayed not an insignificant level of skill and technique around the pitches of South Belfast. Its important to remember that the team came from mini soccer last year and this was their first year in eleven a side soccer, compared to the second year for most of their opponents. The basis of a steady team is there and the hard and sometimes cruel lessons from this year should stand the team in good stead in the years ahead as their experience and confidence grows.

The under 12s were joined by Phil Hastings this year, bringing the average age of the management team back down under 70. This team is one of the club’s most skillfull and well marshalled. They started out as they meant to continue, sweeping teams out of the way with comparative ease. The league title became a two horse charge between ourselves and St. Mary’s. First blood to the North Belfast men, when they won the first game between us this season. The second game could decide the league. With St. Mary’s three points ahead, a draw would do them. A win for Aquinas would push it to a league play off.

First, of course, there was a full fixtures programme to play. Our rivals, Rosario, were twice despatched in tight matches and a superb come back against Glentoran encapsulated the spirit of this team. 3 – 1 down with fifteen minutes to go, Donnelly’s dynamos roared back with on of the best fifteen minutes of football seen at any level to come out the other end 6 – 3 winners. The NIBFA campaign had come to and an end a few weeks previously against Ballymoney.

And so to the league decider, Aquinas v St. Mary’s at Black’s Road on the Saturday after Easter. The flair and excitement of the team’s play in the closing run in of the season seemed to desert the team this time. St. Mary’s took the lead and despite the most of the play in the first half, the blue’n’black just could not find that elusive equaliser.

St. Mary’s started the second half strongly and Aquinas then came back into it. Despite some nice flowing play up the pitch the last ball just would not connect smoothly. Then the body blow, a second St. Mary’s goal and the hill to climb had become a veritable mountain. A draw would do the North Belfast men, we needed to win, which meant three goals in fifteen minutes. It happened before, could it be done again. Time ticked away, sortie followed sortie until the breakthrough .. well a breakthrough of sorts, a goal to make it 2 – 1 with five minutes on the clock. Now, could we get two to pull off an even more amazing comeback than in the Glentoran game. Unfortunately, Carlsberg did not do comebacks that morning, runners up spot had to do for this year and well done to St. Mary’s on their first premier league title.

Rosario were despatched again in the cup after a nervous game at Ulidia. A superb Dominic Mooney free kick saw the ball soar into the top corner of the net. However, defensive uncertainties allowed Rosario to take the lead before half time. The second half saw a determined and feisty blue’n’black effort which saw us equalise before the match seesawed again, in our favour, with the winner not long before the end.

The semi final against Lisburn Distillery started out tight enough. A first half goal gave Aquinas a deserved lead, but a high ball in early in the second half, saw the keeper parry to the foot of a Distillery forward. He lobbed the ball off the bar for his colleague to punt in for the equaliser. The mettle of a team, they say, is in how it responds to setbacks. The Aquinas response was immediate and emphatic. Within minutes Shane Moran had restored the Aquinas lead. Two more goals followed as the match became intensely one sided for a comfortable victory in the end. The surprise defeat of league winners St. Mary’s in the other semi final set up a final with Holywood.

The final took place at Hydebank on 9 May 2009. The weather resembled the end of the world and has been referred to above at the under 11 section. It was so bad during this match that the game had to be suspended for ten minutes, so cold was the piercing rain. The match itself was mismatched. Holywood shouldn’t really have beaten St. Mary’s. They did, though. They had their day in the sun (satirical cutting edge irony) and were swept aside by a rampant blue’n’black machine that has played some superb football all year. 6 – 0 the final score. It would be nice to say that it flattered us, but in reality it didn’t. It could have been a heck of a lot more. The cup offset the disappointment of not winning the league and though wet through the boys celebrated with some gusto. The cup winning team was Marcus Murphy, Aaron Martin, Michael Cummings, Conor King, Dermot McMenamin, Sean Johnston,Luke McKenna, Chris Kelly, Conor Kernaghan, Kevin Ballentine, Dylan Mangan, Dominic Mooney, Gary Lavery and Neil O’Reilly.

The following Saturday saw the team in action again, this time in the Castle Juniors tournament in bangor. Group stage victories over Glentoran, Greenisland and Bryansburn led to a semi final with Hillsbrough and a 3 – 0 passage into the final against Carryduff. Against the run of play, Carryduff opened the scoring. Oh dear. This team don’t really like you scoring against them, particularly first and particularly against the run of play. So, the blue’n’black did what it does best and roared back. Three goals later without reply saw the cup travel to South Belfast and Aquinas Football Club notched up the fifth trophy of the season.

The new under 12 Red Star team assembled under the management of John Campbell, John Greene and David Kerr. After a shaky start with a very small squad, reinforcements strengthened the team and some good victories were knotched up, notably against St. Patrick’s in the NIBFA cup on a memorable morning at Boucher. Lack of results did not mean lack of enthusiasm and the team goes into the close season with an ongoing training programme to get ready for the demands of next year. As with the under 11 Red Star, the majority of this squad was playing eleven a side football for the first time and the experience gained, painfully perhaps, should under David’s and the two John’s shrewd guidance come to fruition in later years.

The under 13s started the season with their customary gusto. Marshalled once again by Denis Kelly and Damien Hughes and boasting the strongest support base in the club, where even grandparents turn up, the boys were determined to banish the disappointment of last year’s second place finish and take back their trophy. Things started to go wrong in November with a series of dropped points, one gained in three games. with the result that by Christmas, although always in the hunt, Aquinas was not in the driving seat, having passed the advantage to reigning champions Dungoyne.

However, these players are not the blue’n’black legends for nothing. Good, classy, hard fought results, with not a point dropped from December, coupled with a couple of slip ups from Dungoyne, saw the balance of power shift again. With three games in hand and seven points behind Dungoyne the maths were simple. Win them all and the trophy would return home to South Belfast. Two wins and a draw would force a league title play off. We had games against Ballynahinch, Red Star Carryduff, Ridgeway and Rosario. In the meantime Dungoyne had two left to play, including like ourselves a difficult one against third place Ridgeway.

Ballynahinch was despatched with comparative ease, but Red Star hadn’t read the script. Even when Aquinas took the lead, balls had to be cleared off lines in face of the red and black attack. A Red Star equaliser late in the second half threatened to derail the title challenge in the most ironic way imaginable until a Joe Cunnane wonder goal, looped in long and high from twenty yards relieved Aquinas tension. Fresh from that escape, Aquinas put four past a defensive Carryduff to leave only two opponents between them and the title. We had a break from the exertions on the Saturday after Easter, to learn with some glee that Ridgeway had held Dungoyne. This meant that victory midweek against Ridgeway would deliver the title before the last game of the season against old rivals, Rosario.

The Ridgeway game started nervously. Blue’n’black tension showed. Plenty of possession was not having the desired affect and half time came with no score on the sheet. The second half started with more Aquinas pressure, which ten minutes in was rewarded when a Carso free kick special ended up where Carso free kicks specials tend to end up, the net. More pressure from a more relaxed Aquinas saw Matt Hughes unceremoniously upended in the Ridgeway box ten minutes form the end. Up stepped Darragh Magill who had closed down anything coming into his central defensive area all game, to show that he could produce at the other end too under pressure. The penalty was well struck and whizzed past the keeper. 2 – 0 the final score and this team had regained its title from under 11. The season ended with a 1 – 1 draw with Rosario at Black’s Road.

The cup saw St. Mary’s overcome to set up a semi final with Dungoyne. And what a semi final it turned put to be. When this team goes out of cups, it goes out with style. All square after full time at 1 – 1, it went to a penalty shootout. Dungoyne went first, and scored. We went second, and also scored. In fact all of the five penalties for both teams were scored. So were the next five. With the score at 10 – 10, our shot was saved and the double disintegrated in the depths of dismay and despair for Denis’s and Damien’s destroyers. That’s enough Ds for one season.

Despite this disappointment, once again one of Aquinas’s best teams had brought home the silverware with some style. The league winning team was Kevin McGovern, Dan Rainey, Dara Magill, Dan McGranaghan, Hugh O’Connor, Matt Carson (capt), Joe Cunnane, John McAllister, Philip O’Sullivan, James Guinness, Konrad Stinson, Peter Morgan, Matt Hughes, Kealan McAllister and Ciaran Mohan.

Under 13 Red Star proved itself in the year to be one of our strongest Red Star teams. Peter Lynch was joined by Adrian McCauley, one of our most experienced coaches, who had taken his previous team from mini soccer to under 17. The team produced some superb shows throughout the year, ran up a respectable number of points and elicited admiration and respect from a wide variety of teams who thought that they just had to turn up.

Reference has already been made to the club derby with Aquinas. An equaliser, a chance to go ahead cleared off the line a couple of minutes previously and denial by the crossbar does not do justice to the story of this match. Aquinas quickly knew they were involved in a match and were mightily relieved when the whistle blew. The only compensation for a Red Star team that had battled brilliantly and played with culture, skill and grace was that the winning goal when it came was a goal worthy of winning a league let alone just a match. This is a team that will grow in confidence and ability and has many a surprise and many an inspiring Saturday morning in it yet.
For the under 14s, managed again by Brendan Rainey, Gerard O’Hagan and Tom Shannon the year contained a mixture of up and downs, some convincing wins and promising football would be cancelled out by disappointments and the frustration of playing well but not being able to finish. Key absences in key matches did not help the cause much either, but nonetheless, a competent finish in the table and lots of potential for next year, if the managers are not hampered by unavailability of players. A 0 – 0 draw in the league with Rosario left the team in mid table. We met Rosario in the cup as well and after a tense match, Aquinas went down 2 – 1.

The under 14 Red Star, similarly, suffered a year of ups and downs. Under the guidance still of Sean Montgomery, Colm McCambridge and Paul Devlin the team continued to pug away at opponents, often losing narrowly and, in some cases, controversially. The disappointment of the league campaign was offset to an extent by a credible performance in the David Campbell Memorial Cup. The team continues to be a couple of players short of where it wants to be, but will be back next year to build on 2008/2009.

The under 15s continued to perform well, finishing a credible fifth in a highly competitive league dominated by the Irish League giants, Linfield and Cliftonville. Convincing wins, over for example old rivals Rosario, were offset by the old story of good honest and exciting football failing to produce enough results on enough days. The team played in one of the most bizarre matches in the NIBFA cup when a “mazey” goal from Dungannon dominated the story of the game. “Mazey” goals tend to be controversial and Dungannon agreed to a replay. The NIBFA shrugged “whatever”.

The game that never was took place on a cold windy Saturday in Lurgan. If the truth be told, the game never was for us and the highpoint of the day fell to some native Lurganites who will tell their grandchildren of the day the German backpackers came to town hunting coffee. Its important, I suppose, to remember that while justice can be painful, its still better than the alternative. However, the team has a good strong squad with some very gifted players and it will only get better.

Under 15 Red Star, with the unflappable David McCullough and the eminently flappable John O’Rourke at the helm continued to sail waters often rough, sometimes smooth but never boring. Some good performances, with some outstanding individual talent nonetheless could not mask a generally frustrating season of the same old same old of more action than results and silly gifted goals. No matter, the team will continue to train and to work hard and can continue to enjoy some success on its travels.

A bright start from the under 16s, managed by Stephen McDonald, Jim Magee and Paul Fay looked promising from a team that wants to regain its old glory days, but often seems to come up short. The bright start was blunted with a couple of frustrating results, notably the last minute equaliser from Carniny. Hopes of a league challenge died in the web of frustration but a useful NIBFA run promised more, until it too came to an end in Cookstown. Similarly, the team enjoyed a good South Belfast cup run reaching the semi final after a convincing 4 – 0 victory over Carrick.

Noel McKee dropped out of team management this year to concentrate on a club wide development role. Accordingly, John Bogue and Eoin Webb, joined then in December by Ryan Connor, looked after the under 17s. Brian Fee and Peter McKenna continued in this role with the Red Star. It was largely an indifferent season for both teams, the Red Star highlight being the 3 – 1 defeat of Aquinas early in the season. It was the first time that this had happened and it marked a significant development for Red Star. The Aquinas under 17 team was not without its own moments, notably two hard fought draws with more powerful rivals, Rosario.