Lee Bonis’ roots with Portadown BBOB and Seagoe that helped shape £100k striker

At a time of year when the rumour mill chatter hits fever pitch, it feels as if Lee Bonis’ name has been part of every conversation around January’s transfer talk.

Saturday, 15th January 2022, 1:57 am

It has been almost impossible to scroll around social media or bring up New Year business within Irish League circles without being exposed to an opinion on the 22-year-old striker’s move to Larne from Portadown.

Of course, it is both understandable and unavoidable in a deal understood to have left Portadown with a six-figure cash windfall, Larne one of the most promising young talents in domestic football and the player a coveted opportunity at full-time football he described as ‘what I’ve wanted from I was a little boy’.

Some mocked the reported £100,000 fee and dismissed it as greed destroying the local game, others celebrated the financial influx within the Premiership and plenty simply offered hopes for continued progress by a young player leaving his hometown club in search of maximising potential.

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Sixteen-year-old Lee Bonis with Portadown BBOB manager Robert Love after scoring in the club's Foster Cup final victory. Pic courtesy of Portadown BBOB.

Opinions covered the full spectrum as 2022 kicked off with a deal which captured the imagination of football fans across the country.

This month’s amped-up profile proved in stark contrast to Bonis’ previous transfer when, in the summer of 2019, he made the jump out of the Mid-Ulster Football League to Portadown.

That switch from Seagoe back on to the books of a Portadown club he had represented across youth level caused few ripples, deemed for most a footnote at best within the transfer activity.

However much the general observer may have deemed Bonis’ move little more than an afterthought or gamble by the Ports without any real risk, for those around Mid-Ulster’s Seagoe and Portadown BBOB clubs it was a deal of some significance.

Lee Bonis won the Alan Wilson Cup with Seagoe in 2019 just a few months before joining Portadown. Pic courtesy of Seagoe FC.

The Mid-Ulster scene boasts some of the most dedicated and passionate people connected to the beautiful game in Northern Ireland but any realistic review of the talent pool would appreciate the landmark achievement of Bonis making a climb from its fourth tier into full-time football at one of the major clubs on the modern Premiership scene all within the space of around six years.

Bonis left Portadown Youth as a boy in search of a path outside the traditional in-house Irish League production line. He eventually returned to the parent club, although still just 19 years old, a man in football terms thanks to an education around the bruising Mid-Ulster school of hard knocks for Portadown BBOB and Seagoe.

His Larne debut on Tuesday as a substitute in Co Antrim Shield final glory over Linfield capped a whirlwind week.

Bonis spent his final few hours as a Portadown player last Saturday watching an Irish Cup win over Limavady United from the Shamrock Park stands, essentially back in the role of supporter of his hometown club for those 90 minutes.

Farewells were made on Saturday evening once the proverbial ink had dried on his Larne deal in the knowledge Bonis’ parting gift to his boyhood favourites was a cash injection which could prove vital in saving the club from relegation over the second half of this season.

Fitness tests and media commitments followed at Larne before early training sessions leading up to Tuesday’s final and a rapid addition to his remarkable run of having tasted trophy success at every club.

This weekend he will be hoping for a first taste of Premiership playing time in Larne colours.

Looking on from two small corners back in Portadown will be those connected to Portadown BBOB and Seagoe - two clubs happy to have played small but significant roles in Bonis’ rise.

“Lee lived a few minutes away from our pitch and, like many of the young lads in the estate, would join in training at times or just hang around,” said Robert Love, the Portadown BBOB manager when Bonis signed for the club a few months past his 16th birthday in 2015. “Physically he was always able to handle everything and we basically put him straight into the firsts.

“That season he helped us get promotion out of Division Two and win the Foster Cup.

“He played plenty of games and you could see the potential for Lee to push on as he had so much ability and it was just about how he would focus and channel everything.

“Despite being so young, Lee would go up against anyone...which you could see even when playing for the first time with Portadown in the Premiership against some really big names.

“Other teams would look at Lee and try to intimidate him but our attitude was if you’re good enough you’re old enough and certainly even in our own training sessions no-one would hold much back.

“But he was a kid from our estate and everyone at the club made sure to protect and look after him in whatever way possible.

“Even now if you bumped into Lee around the estate he would chat away and not pass you, plus he still has so many of the same friends from around his time with us and growing up in the area.

“We’re all just delighted to see Lee progress and happy to have helped him back then...it’s going to be so exciting to see how he continues to drive on.”

Bonis’ game developed under the guidance of Matthew Tipton and the Portadown coaching staff during seasons spent at Championship and Premiership level, as a result, attracting international recognition with Northern Ireland under 21s and interest from clubs in England.

But Bonis still draws on his raw tools and it is the throwback to that mentality that made him such a fan favourite at Portadown - the street footballer with the drive and dream, striving to wring every last measure of talent out of his skillset.

Dave Stewart was Bonis’ strike partner during 17 months in Mid-Ulster Intermediate B with Seagoe that ultimately led to his desired return to the Irish League scene off an explosive and eye-catching 50-plus goal return in a single full season.

“He was just brilliant to play alongside,” said Stewart. “He had the legs of three people, never missed a game or training session and added so much pace and power to our attack.

“My job was basically just to feed Lee the ball in that season he was on fire.

“He would take penalties and free-kicks, shoot from anywhere and everywhere, challenge for every ball, go up against anyone and score every type of goal.

“Over that first half-season when he came from Portadown BBOB to Seagoe in 2017 we thought we were just getting a good Mid-Ulster player...then he developed so much physically to add to his potential and from the first match of that full season he scored two and never looked back.

“There was one run where Lee scored a hat-trick in four successive games...16 in total.

“He was just amazing over that campaign.

“Still just a teenager when with us but anyone looking would think of Lee in his mid-20s and it’s crazy to think he is still now just 22 years old.

“It was clear he was too good for our level and we all just wanted Lee to get the chance he deserved and wanted in the Irish League.

“When he was at Portadown, we used to crowd around after our Seagoe games and watch out for him as the scores came in - and we’ll be doing the same now he’s at Larne.

“I’m a Portadown fan as well and went to watch Lee in an early friendly at Dungannon just after he left us.

“He came off the bench and it was brilliant to see him go in straight away for a challenge and close down the Swifts...just like with us.

“He has that raw enthusiasm and drive which we loved as team-mates and fans always get behind.

“People talk about the price tag but nothing ever seems to faze Lee.

“Lee is someone with a real determination to succeed but great attitude who always stayed humble.

“Lee is just someone who has that pure love for football.

“He really would play two games a day if allowed and it’s so great to think how he can push on now with the benefit of full-time training with Larne.”

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