Just when we thought the story was complete, Saturday 1st May 2004 dawned. Saturday 1st May 2004 has become one of the most significant days in the story of Aquinas Football Club, the day our under-10s won the NIBFA cup. The Northern Ireland Boys’ Football Association Cup is the premier trophy in children’s football in Northern Ireland. There is none higher, and for the next year, at least, it will reside in South Belfast, with Aquinas.
The day itself was a beautiful, sunny, mild, late spring day. The sun was shining over the Comber Recreation Ground, where the final was held. Aquinas had travelled in some numbers, and when the team entered the pitch it was greeted with a tremendous ovation from the Aquinas support, which stretched all the way along one touchline. Aquinas started, not shakily, by any stretch of the imagination, but, perhaps, a little nervously. Certainly, Dungoyne, our opponents, made the better start, although, to be honest, even with that, they did not threaten us too much.
Aquinas soon picked up the pace a bit, although throughout the first half, we did not play at anywhere near top gear, and, in truth, our performance flattered Dungoyne. Although they scored, and the half ended 1-0 to them, even their goal was the result more of a lapse by Aquinas, in not clearing their line, than by anything special or significant that Dungoyne did.
At times of pressure and crisis, good managers and coaches shine through. Whatever Garry, Jim, Phil and Stevie said to the players at half time did the trick and it was a fired up Aquinas that came out for the second half. If Dungoyne might have been judged to have won the first half, Aquinas would be the better team from now on in.
The second half began with a barrage of Aquinas pressure, as the search for the equaliser began with a seriousness lacking in the first half. It was not long before the pressure paid off. Matthew McClean had burst through into their box and was unceremoniously brought down. The referee had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot. 1-0 down in the biggest cup final in children’s’ football, and we have a penalty. The tension on the touchline was palpable. However, Aquinas players are made of sterner stuff. Captain Peter Mooney stepped up, and coolly slotted home. The cheer could be heard back in South Belfast.
The rest of the second half was a story of Aquinas pressure. We wanted this match so much, attack after attack was put together. The ball was played superbly from player to player, Dungoyne were stretched all over the park. Yet the winner would not come. On one occasion we shot just wide of the post, on another the crowd had risen, the celebratory cheer was half shouted … but the ball hit the post.
Was it going to be another of those days, Aquinas the better team, playing the better football, doing everything but putting the ball in the net, with Dungoyne delivering a killer blow with about their only attack? Just to emphasise this, in the last five or so minutes, Dungoyne did get the ball forward, pat our defence, through on goal, and it took a brilliant tackle from Ryan Murray to put the ball out of play and steady Aquinas nerves.
Full time ended at 1-1. It would go to extra time, and the cruellest extra time of all, the golden goal. Whoever scored first would win it. There was no second chance for the team that conceded. If there was no score after the two ten minutes halves, it went to penalties. There is no bad way to win a final, there are no worse ways to lose one that by golden goal or penalties. No matter, Aquinas, coaches and players, could not afford to let these thoughts enter their minds or distract them from the job at hand, for there was still a job to do.
The first half of extra time gave Dungoyne the advantage of the slope and the wind. Consequently, for Aquinas, the main task was not to concede. In truth, despite these natural advantages, Dungoyne did not trouble us. They did have breaks and did play some good football, but still, our defence managed them well, and the goalie went largely untroubled.
The second half was played in very much the same vein, Aquinas were the better team and were creating more and better chances. At the same time, the game was drawing to a close and penalties were beginning to loom, and then Mark Cummings picked up the ball on the right inside the Dungoyne half. He brought it forward and then passed it into the centre of their box. Ben Leonard ran onto it, Dungoyne reacted, but Be dummied it and the ball came to Matthew McClean, who blasted it past the prostrate Dungoyne goalie into the back of the net. The golden goal was ours, all those lost cup finals faded into distant memory. The cheer and the pitch invasion and the faces of the players and coaches said it all.
The Dungoyne players were disconsolate. It is terrible was to lose a final, and there is nothing that can be said to make it less so. At the same time, it was either them or us, we were the better team. We were the deserved winners. The team captain, Peter Mooney led his team up to receive their medals. He then was presented with the cup, amid scenes of celebration and joy that, with dedication and commitment, promise to remain part of Aquinas’s future. The history making squad that day was: Peter Mooney, John Doherty, Conor Brown, Mark Salters, John Bailie, James Magee, Rory Finnegan, Garrett Cullen, Matthew McClean, Ben Leonard, Brendan Ferguson, Ryan Murray, Ronan McGrady, Conor O’Neill and Mark Cummings.