What a Superb Day!

For teams that have been playing together for just 5 weeks, the Hillsborough Knights had a majestic day at Londonderry Park, Newtownards at the IFA’s Back in the Game tournament.

The Over 35s were unbeaten across all of their matches and the Under 45s almost had a similar unblemished record – losing just one match. But this was more than offset by the fact that they beat the Northern Ireland First Team – featuring players like Sammy McIlroy and Mal Donaghy.

Over 35s

For the Over 35s the tone was set early on. Despite conceding a goal straight from the first kick off (early morning alarm call required) they went on to be a constant threat and came back to earn a well-deserved 1-1 draw. For me, the match highlight was a spectacular save from Terry Barnes that would have graced any premiership match – top corner masterful dive with pike, double somersault and tuck – one for the cameras to be sure. The next match they won 7-0 and went on to either win or draw their remaining fixtures.

Early on, Leah Montgomery established herself as our most composed player (not my words – her team mates). She had an assured presence in mid field, more than held her own against tough opposition and supplied piercing balls to split defences wide open to allow players like Andy Benbow and Timmy Houston to score some great goals. Wayne Bradley was equally assured on the ball and controlled the game superbly in midfield.

Personally, I think the highlight of Andy Benbow’s day was getting to wear Sean Walsh’s quilted coat on the touchline – he’s never done hinting at how much he’d like one. Or maybe it was scoring two in a 2-0 victory – ably assisted by Timmy Houston (see below).

It was great to see our coaches putting their money where their mouths are and playing some great football. None more so than Paul Rafferty who controlled the game whenever he was on the pitch and had a great eye for the telling through ball.

Jonathan McCutcheon and Jason Lowry were immense throughout – contributing to a fantastic display of pass and movement that Alan Hanson would have been proud of. I’ve never seen anyone take so many hard tackles and get up smiling and wanting more than Jason Lowry – there’s a hint of the masochist there methinks.

One half of the gruesome twosome that is the Houston brothers was Timmy Houston. What a character. A man who was not only counting goals (and he scored some fine goals, in fairness) but he was counting his assists from the start. This was partly so he could go lord it over brother Terry who was playing for the Over 45s (and who was equally counting goals and assists!). It must have been tough growing up in the Houston house with brothers as competitive as these two! Their infectious good humour was such a team asset.

For me, though, the Over 35s goal of the day was scored by Richard Holmes (sorry Timmy!). In the last match against a well-drilled Portavogie team who had obviously been together for a lot longer than 5 weeks, Hillsborough were trailing 1-0. The ball fell to Richard’s feet in the right corner of the pitch and from a raked angle as he fell to the ground, tackled from behind, he produced a rasping shot that must have burned the goal keeper’s hands as it bulleted into the top left corner of the net – a glorious goal. You could see from Richard’s controlled but impassioned celebration that it meant something. My camera announced two seconds before he scored that the battery was low and it had stopped capture. I don’t think he was impressed.

An amazing day summed up by Paul Alexander’s now legendary comment “To be honest, yous are playing a lot better that we thought yez would!” Needless to say, the team were extremely gratified by his inspiring vote of confidence and the subsequent banter was most succinct and to the point.

Over 45s

At the same time, the Under 45s were more than holding their own against some stiff opposition – including two Northern Ireland teams. With the assured Alan Shellard in goal producing some great saves and setting up some nice moves from the back, the team knew they had solid bedrock on which to build strong performances.

Terry Houston knew he had to score goals and amass a significant number of assists if he was to avoid the inevitable gloating from younger brother Timmy and this he did in spades – producing a masterful performance to ensure wee brother Timmy had to button it when he appeared later to compare notes. However, this didn’t stop Timmy from pointing out that he had scored 5 and assisted in 4 of his team’s 12 goals and that Terry wasn’t in the same league as him… no pun intended (his words not mine!). Terry, on the other hand, says he had the higher percentage involvement in his team goals. What a pair!

Alan’s mate John Howie came in to the team late in the day but proved to be a real find – a gentleman with a really great touch on the ball and a superb addition to the Knights.

Darren Montgomery, Leah’s better half, was yet another example of a Hillsborough coach who proved on the day that he could walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Proud daughter Katie watched from the touchline as Dad and Mum turned in top performances.

Rodney Waring’s stated objective at the start of the day was to survive. He did. Actually, he more than achieved this and was as much help off the pitch as he was on. He and Evan Rowlands provided constant words of encouragement and communication from the touchline before taking the field to provide inspired performances.

Speaking of Evan, he had a chance of immortality during the NI match when the ball was struck firmly across the NI goalmouth and he had a tap in as he slid in to score a beautiful goal. He somehow missed the ball. But it’s ok. Paul Alexander got it on video so we can make sure he’s haunted by it for a very long time. He tells me his problem was he took his eye off the ball because he’d already started the celebration. Life is cruel (not as cruel as the fact that he had a 10 hour flight to Chicago the next day – I wouldn’t want to own his calf muscles getting off that plane!)

Damir Kapovic was a strong presence and skilful player of the ball. He broke down many opposition attacks and provided more than one killer pass to set up his team mates.

The long awaited NI match arrived. It was a classic. We hoped to hold our own but, in fact, the team went on to control the early proceedings and when the ball fell to Simon Spence’s feet in the middle of the park, he settled himself and put his laces through a wonderfully sweet strike into the top corner. 1-0 to Hillsborough and suddenly we were all really enjoying ourselves, wondering would we ever hear the end of it (in fairness, Simon’s a good lad and we don’t expect to ever hear of it again).

When the ball dropped to Trevor Andrews on the left wing, nobody was prepared for the beautiful shot that left his boot – searing across the NI goal mouth and leaving the NI keeper a spectator as it lodged itself into the top right corner. An absolute beauty and at 2-0 up the fans were stoked. Northern Ireland came back well but the Knights managed to nullify most of their attacks – the players relishing the chance to take on Sammy McIlroy.

Finally NI did score a goal – McIlroy slotting a ball across Alan Shellard’s goal and a “tricksy” back heel was supplied to slot the ball home to make the score 2-1.

Simon Spence was the “old head on young(ish) looking shoulders” as he exhorted his team mates to keep the ball. It didn’t matter. It was too little, too late for NI and over the 12 minutes, Hillsborough were the better team. With some mild encouragement from Davy Edmont (see below) the ref blew for full time and a famous victory was recorded!

Special mention must go to super fan Davy Edmont. He drove the minibus down and then proceeded to audition for a job on Sky TV. For the most part, in fairness, he was a picture of decorum and respectability. However, when it came time for the match against the NI 1 team, he set about developing a “special” relationship with the referee including gems like “we’re Brazil, not Northern Ireland”,  “blow it up ref, it’ll be dark soon”, “blow the whistle ref, stop their embarrassment” (I’m not quoting verbatim but you get the idea). It was all done with jovial banter and bonhomie. For me the highlight was when he joked “They don’t like it up ‘em” – conjuring up images of Lance Corporal Jack Jones (played by Clive Dunn) from Dad’s Army! Unbelievable stuff. Davy was a fantastic addition to the day.

Given that both teams had squads of 9 playing 7 a side there were no hiding places and nobody was hiding. There were genuinely no weak links in these teams. The players played with a maturity that you’d expect from people their age but it was more than that. I’m not quite sure how to put my finger on it but they had a quiet understanding and trust of each other that, to me at least, wasn’t as obvious in some of the other teams they played. It really was a pleasure to watch them play and those of us that were there to witness it were privileged to do so.

There will be some tired limbs to be sure but everyone had a great day with some great memories and real sense of a great team achievement.

Well done, the Knights!