ST COLUMB’S College created history by becoming the first school to win the prestigious Five Nations Championship twice when they lifted the trophy in Belfast at the weekend.
The Buncrana Road school won the ‘British Isles’ tournament in 2011 and on Saturday, eight years after that maiden success, their U14 representatives went all the way to clinch the 2019 trophy at the Billy Neill Soccer Centre of Excellence.
St Columb’s defeated fellow Northern Ireland representatives, Aquinas Grammar School 3-1 in Saturday’s Final to add the Alan McKinstry trophy to the NI Schools Cup title they won at the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium last month.
It’s a talented bunch of youngsters who have clinched three successive Northern Ireland Schools’ Cup titles under the tutelage of coach, Ryan Horner who steps down as the team’s coach.
And Mr Horner was delighted with the achievements of the young Derry lads and reckons the team can go on to dominate schools’ football for several years to come.
In fact the St Columb’s College teacher reckons this team can surpass the success of their 2011 counterparts by winning all seven NI Schools Cup titles.
“The 2011 squad won six Northern Ireland cups but these boys could go and win seven,” he said. “The 2011 squad didn’t win it in their upper sixth year as they lost a lot of players whereas, if these guys can stay together, they can do seven in a row.
“They don’t know what it’s like to lose,” he added. “However, this week proved it isn’t always easy as we drew with the Republic of Ireland team. We were getting beat by the English champions but in the final we stepped up.
“It’s not only a great achievement for the school but for the whole of Derry as well. It will probably take a while for the achievement to sink in but I was expecting to win it. What I knew for certain was that it was going to take one hell of a team to beat us.
“I knew if we played to our potential we would be there or thereabouts. It was fully deserved!”
St Columb’s met Carrickmacross school, Patrician High School in their opening match last Thursday and while Lee Duddy was unfortunate to see his late effort rise over the crossbar the game finished in a stalemate. The Derry school, however, won the penalty shootout 4-2 to earn a bonus point and keep their destiny in their own hands.
“Our hardest game was actually against the Republic of Ireland team in our first match,” said Mr Horner. “We drew 0-0 and I think the boys were a bit nervous just because of the build-up to it. To be fair to the lads they won the penalty shootout 4-2.”
Next up on the Friday was English champions, Henry Cort Community College from Portsmouth who opened the scoring in the 16th minute when, following a corner, Ben Evans struck a shot from the edge of the penalty area which left St Columb’s ‘keeper, Joe McConnellogue with no chance.
Sean Carlin nearly brought the scores level but his effort rattled the bar and stayed out. St Columb’s fortunes changed early in the second half when Duddy floated a cross into the box which deceived the ‘keeper and found its way into the net.
Toby Steward redeemed himself with a brilliant save to keep the scores level but could do nothing when substitute Jack McFeely bagged a memorable brace which proved decisive.
“In the next game we played the English champions and they were actually beating us 1-0,” recalled Mr Horner. “Jack McFeely came off the bench and changed the game. Lee Duddy opened the scoring for us with a wonder strike and then McFeely scored with an overhead kick. McFeely’s second goal was even better as he chipped their goalkeeper who is 6’ 2’’ and is actually on Portsmouth Football Club’s books. We deserved the win.”
Onto the final where they met Ravenhill Road school, Aquinas whom they beat 4-0 in the Northern Ireland Cup Final in 2018. During the early stages St Columb’s hopes suffered a major blow when goalkeeper, McConnellogue was taken to hospital with suspected concussion after he took a knock to the head when an Aquinas player was clean through on goal.
“I was genuinely worried for the youngster at that stage, the tournament didn’t matter to me,” explained Mr Horner. “Tiernan Morrison went into nets which was no issue but the fact he had to go to hospital played on my mind. I thought it would play on the minds of the players too but they went the other way and said ‘Let’s go and win it for Joe’ and they were 3-0 up by half-time. The heads could’ve gone and it could’ve effected them negatively but they showed great character.
“At that stage our captain, Oran Kelly really stood up and we scored soon afterwards. Shae Feeney cut inside from the left and scored a goal which settled the boys. From their corner Kelly played McFeely through and he finished with aplomb.
“Just before half-time Kelly scored from distance with a wonderful free-kick to make it 3-0. Second half we conceded from a free-kick but never looked like we would lose the game.
“We received good news from the Ulster Hospital afterwards as Joe was released and the team said they wouldn’t have any celebrations until Joe was there as he was a bit of an unsung hero for the team. They wanted to do everything together. They all play for different D&D clubs in the youth leagues but they come together as a College team and there are no divisions.”
So with the 2019 Five Nations Trophy tucked away in the schools’ bulging trophy cabinet, how does Mr Horner rate this current team alongside the all conquering 2011 Nations Cup winners which included the likes of Conor McDermott, Mikhail Kennedy, Rory Holden and Conor Quigley?
“It’s difficult to compare the two,” he said. “Put it this way, we travelled with a squad of 16 players and every player played a game this year. The 2011 team probably had more outstanding individuals who all went on to play at a high level but this team probably had more of a togetherness.
“It was great to see the Derry public came out to support us too which was brilliant. We had a massive following down there and a great representation from the school as well which helped.
“I also have to thank the boys’ various D&D teams who are obviously doing things right.”
With a heavy heart Mr Horner revealed it was his last game as coach for this particular crop of youngsters as he looks to take over the school’s current U12 team.
“I’m actually finished with them now after three years,” he explained. “I’m trying to build another team now, the U12s,who are currently NI champions. I’m looking forward to that.
“After three years I don’t think they can learn anything else from me. I really enjoyed the three year journey with them.”