2009 - 2010

2009/2010 saw the club enter some of its Red Star teams in the Down and Connor league. Aquinas teams were entered at under 13, under 15 and under 18. Two other Red Star teams stayed in the South Belfast League, the under 14s by choice and the under 16s by necessity as no such age group existed in Down and Connor. The club also ventured into the under 19 North Down League again after a gap of a year.

The mini soccer school continued to operate under the guidance of Conor McCleave at Black’s Road on a Saturday morning. He was joined by Neil Donaldson, Damien O’Neill, Brendan Agnew, Ruairi Taylor, whose work commitments unfortunately meant he had to drop out and, after the collapse of the under 13 Aquinas team in Down and Connor, David Kerr.

The school continued its format of training sessions followed by football practice and ran for two and a half hours. The annual mini soccer tournament was run on Saturday 6 March 2010 and on top of two Aquinas teams attracted entries from Carniny, St. Mary’s, Castle Juniors and Rosario. Each team played each other once and the tournament went to the last match before Castle Juniors retained their trophy from the previous year by seeing off second placed Rosario.

The new under 10 team under the management of Paul Crossey got off to an up and down start, winning some, losing some before coming right in the cup. After despatching Glentoran in the semi final with a winner from virtually the last kick of a very competitive game, a final date was set up with Carniny.

The final was played at Mallusk on a beautiful Friday evening at the start of June, 4 June 2010 to be exact. A capacity crowd on both touchlines ensured a cracking atmosphere for a game played in the best of spirits. Carniny scored first, only to see Conor Johnston equalise before half time, when a move started down the right between Peter King, Peter Henvey and Dominic Clear say the ball break eventually to James Crossey just inside the box. He pulled the ball across for Conor who coolly shot low into the right hand side of the goal. Carniny could have re-taken the lead before half time but a flying save by Aquinas keeper Conor McGeown kept the scores level.

Early in the second half, an Aquinas move through the middle between Peter King, Angus Harron and the majestic Peter Henvey who is bossing the game by this stage, has forced Carniny back to the edge of their box. The ball is bouncing around, Carniny can’t get it cleared. Amidst the oohs, ahhs and gasps from the Aquinas touchline, a headed clearance falls to James Crossey. He knocks the ball back over the Carniny defence for Dominic Clear coming in from the left. Dominic gets on to the end of and fires home for 2-1. Unfortunately, Aquinas celebrations had barely ceased when Carniny reply with a charge down the right to win a free kick just onside the Aquinas box on the left. The Carniny shot sails over the four man wall and high into the net, giving Conor McGeown, who has been in amazing from throughout the match, no chance at all.

Its all about nerve and tactics now. The Aquinas managers want to win it in normal time and push the commanding Peter Henvey upfront. Chances come for both teams but the Aquinas defence of Niall Agnew, James Mellon, Niall McStravick and Cormac Barr remained firm. So too did Carniny and extra time arrives.

From the kick off Aquinas made a few quick passes in midfield before the ball was passed back to Peter Henvey, who in the absence of master provider James Crossey, hits a superb pass over the midfield and Carniny defence. This pass was met by Dominic Clear coming in from the right picking the ball up in the centre of the box 15 yards out lobbed it over the advancing Carniny keeper and into the centre on the net for 3-2.

With Carniny pushing for an equaliser Peter Henvey dropped back into a five man Aquinas midfield and tireless Peter King continued to forage up front on his own. The second period of extra time was full of tension but short on clear cut chances for either team as tired legs take over from enthusiasm. The referee’s whistle brought joyous celebrations from the Aquinas team and supporters and brought an end to an exciting match played in the proper spirit by both Aquinas and Carniny U10 teams.

The cup winning team was Conor McGeown, Niall Agnew, Niall McStravick, James Mellon, Cormac Barr, Peter Henvey, Conor Johnston, James Crossey, Dominic Clear, Peter King, Cian Murphy, Jacob Pollock, John Morgan, Eunan Carlin, Caelan Magee, Angus Harron and Cian McDonnell. They sang and danced in the ice cream parlours and sweet shops of South Belfast well into the night.

The arrival of Ashraf Abuharb and Robert Macho, former players in Slovakia saw the creation of a development league squad for under 10s as well. They were soon joined by another Slovakian veteran, Peter Milan. The squad formed two teams in a nine a side league. The league experience started well with a series of fine wins. However, transfer to the Castlereagh centre from Belfast saw stiffer opposition and the squad had to struggle to grind out results. No matter, they are inexperienced and under the watchful and experienced eyes of their coaches can expect to achieve their potential within the next couple of years or so. At the same time, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, a post season tournament at Carryduff saw the squad top its group and the season at least finished with medals for the bedroom walls.

The under 11 management team of Garry Cullen and Noel McKee lost Stephen Connolly but were joined by Michael Quinn for the serious work of trying to improve on the under 10 year. The boys worked hard and did produce some nice football and some good results, but overall performance wasn’t rewarded with success and despite a hardy and hearty attitude from the players relegation to division one could not be avoided. On the other hand, there is great potential in this squad and don’t bet against an immediate return to the top division in a year’s time.

Brendan McCann and Fran McCann, the McCann gang, took their newly gathered squad from mini soccer into the Castlereagh nine a side development centre. They were joined during the year by Martin Mulholland, providing a non-McCann management input. Its a season of two halves, as I’m sure some well paid pundit has observed at some stage. This team proved this.

In the first session of games, between September and Christmas, the team struggled to put together results, but 2010 saw them undefeated, running up firstly modest wins against teams that had beaten them easily in the first part of the season and then seeing them recorded less modest victories week in and week out against the top names in the development league. Brendan, Fra and Martin were euphoric about the improvement in performance and could see improvements in every player. This, surely, is what the development system is all about and this team, the managers will tell you, are the proof that the experiment works. I suspect that it is also something to do with the dedication of the managers, but they refuse to be drawn on that.

Mike Gibbons stood down from the under 12 management team, but Jim Morrison and Maxi were joined not just by one John McKeown, but two. Father and son team of young John McKeown and younger John McKeown. The league was a stop start frustrating affair, some great and convincing results, such as against Solway Stars, and some disappointing mornings, such as the first ever defeat by a single late goal at Black’s Road to old rivals Rosario. Similarly, a trip to defending champions, Dungannon, in the NIBFA cup ended in defeat and the long trip home again.

However, this team’s niche is in the cup. It won the cup as part of its famous treble and hadn’t given it back yet, retaining it at under 11. Jim and his merry men now faced Crusaders in the final at Blanchflower. Surely a three year cup winning stint was a step too far? Could the team that won the first treble become the first team to win silverware three years on the trot?

Aquinas took an early lead when James Carson blasted home early on. However, the Crues came back before half time. In the second half, Aquinas restored their lead only to let the North Belfast outfit back in again to take the game to extra time. In front of a capacity crowd on the blue’n’black touchline a nervy period of extra time produced no break in the deadlock and the outcome went to extra time.

Now was the time for blue’n’black nerves to hold. While the touchline suffered, any nerves from the players were kept well in check as we scored our first three penalties. A miss from Crusaders meant if we scored the fourth, it would be well and truly advantage Aquinas. We missed. They stepped up for their fourth, Jack Johnston, who had a tremendous game pulling off brilliant saves from everything that was thrown at him, didn’t disappoint. He guessed right and saved the shot.

Now it was simple, if Aquinas scored, Aquinas would keep the cup for a third year. Up stepped James Carson, from a famous Aquinas family, blue’n’black to his bone marrow. He had opened the scoring well over an hour previously, could he now finish it and keep the cup for Aquinas. What Crusaders didn’t know was that James doesn’t know the meaning of nerves. With ice in his veins he strode slowly up to the spot. He calmly and deliberately placed the ball. He stepped back, he ran up, he shot ......... the net bulged, the touchline exploded in joy, the cup stayed in South Belfast with the under 12s/11s/10s. Our cup stayed at home!

The under 12 cup winning squad was: James Smith, James Carson, Jack Johnston, Ryan McGuigan, Brogan Mac Auibhstin, Enda Kelly-McCann, Finbar Devlin, Tiarnan Cahill, Jake Morrison, Daire McGarvey, Peter Lavery, Peter webb, Daniel Guinness, Gerard Kervick, Frank McCormack, Darragh Doherty and John Blaney.

Under the continued guidance of Pascal Donnelly and Marty McNally, and for a while John Bailey too, the under 13s set out on what would be an emotional rollercoaster year of great highs and end of season heartbreak. The season kicked off with great hopes as the team notched up several double figure victories. Defeat to Springfield Star sobered the mood slightly but winning ways were soon restored.

By the midpoint of the season, it was clear that this league was going to be a two horse race between ourselves and cross river rivals, Rosario. Defeat to holders, Bertie Peacock, in the NIBFA cup in Coleraine meant that, euphemistically, we could concentrate on the league. A very poor performance against Rosario saw us hand the advantage to them at Black’s Road in January. The team continued to play poorly for many matches, but nonetheless with the return of Gary Lavery and Marcus Murphy, Michael Johnston and Dominic Mooney firing on all cylinders, we continued to dig out the results. Gradually, form returned, just in time it seemed for the Wednesday evening end of season decider with Rosario at Ulidia.

Going into this game, the last of the season, we needed to win whereas a draw would do Rosario. Both teams started nervously as both probed and prodded for the early breakthrough. Aquinas settled better and soon began to dominate the game. This domination was rewarded with two goals. Rosario got one back to finish the first half 2 – 1. We increased our lead early in the second half and would have had the game sewn up when Gary Lavery went down in the Roses’ box. Surely a penalty, which if converted would have left the score 4 – 1 and too long a way back for Rosario. However, the only opinion that mattered, the referee’s was no penalty and play was waived on. The Aquinas touchline can think what it likes, its now a historical point.

Rosario started to come back into the game as Aquinas legs tired. Two easy goals, high balls in to the far post saw a dream end for the light blues. With three minutes on the clock, we took the ball back up the field again from the restart, forced a free kick, but couldn’t convert and when the whistle sounded it was the East bank of the Lagan that could celebrate the night away. For the second time in two years, the league had been denied to this great Aquinas team at the final hurdle. Aquinas were due to meet Rosario in the cup final three days later. In truth, though, that match had also been decided on that Wednesday evening. Aquinas went through the motions, but Rosario ran out convincing winners.

It was, ultimately, a disappointing season for a great team. However, greatness can be measured in how teams respond to adversity. With some key players moving on to Irish league clubs, next season will be a process of rebuilding and consolidation. Nonetheless, this team is too good to be dormant for long and the tiger will roar again before too long.

An under 13 Aquinas team under the management of John Campbell, John Greene and David Kerr took to the field in the Down and Connor league. However, if the truth be told, the team struggled to make eleven players and despite the Down and Connor league’s generosity and flexibility, the team had to be wound up just before Christmas having played only a handful of games.

The defending league champions started their under 14 year in good form. A series of wins was brought to a juddering halt by Dungoyne who had recruited some new big players over the close season. No matter, the galacticos fought valiantly and were still withi9n shouting distance when the rematch took place at Hydebank. A draw in January meant that a win was essential, although it would still require Dungoyne to slip up elsewhere if the title was to be retained.