Two weeks before school closure and lockdown, the Portadown College U16 football team made school history by reaching the NI Schools Cup final for the very first time. Previous semi-final appearances in recent years against top opposition from Boys’ Model (Belfast) and St.Columb’s (Londonderry) had unfortunately ended in defeat and bitter disappointment. However, a thoroughly deserved 4-1 semi-final victory over RBAI at a wet and windy Seaview stadium on Monday 9 March broke PC’s semi-final hoodoo. A place in the final had been secured at last with the squad members eager to find out if they were to face St.Malachy’s (Belfast) or St.Columb’s in the showpiece final. The second semi-final, due to be played on Thursday 13 March, was postponed due to concerns around the Coronavirus outbreak and, like all other NIFL fixtures province-wide, was postponed indefinitely.
Having secured a bye in the first round of this season’s competition PC travelled to Ballymoney to face Dalriada in Round 2 at the Joey Dunlop centre. It had been rumoured that PC would find their north Antrim opposition tough to break down and the first minutes of the game saw the PC defence called into action to stem the attacking threat down the left. PC took time to settle and once the lead was established in this game it was clear that the College’s front men wanted more goals. A comprehensive 6-2 win included a sublimely taken hat-trick from Isaac Baird, a brace from Craig Archer and a sweet Harry Murphy strike from outside the penalty area. Murphy led by example as stand-in captain for absent teammate Dane McCullough who was on international duty with Northern Ireland in Turkey.
Round three provided another away test, this time against St.Colman’s (Ballynahinch). The unexpectedly straightforward passage to the quarter final saw a number of players make the score sheet; Murphy continued where he left off in the previous round with a dominant attacking midfielder performance and an incredible tally of five goals, Craig Archer chipped in with an excellent hat-trick and the scoring was completed with contributions from Baird, Creighton, a superbly struck diagonal drive from McCullough and a well won Calum McShane penalty.
On to round 4 and guess what? Another away tie, this time at St.Patrick’s High School in Keady. With confidence growing the boys once again demonstrated their skill, flair and discipline en route to the latter rounds of the competition. This tie was not without incident, even strange and difficult at times as PC went into a seemingly unassailable 4-0 lead early on only to see the Keady lads dig deep to pull two goals back in quick succession to drag themselves back into the contest. At times it really was a game that could have gone either way, although it was clear that PC played the more attractive football for more sustained periods. Scorers were Isaac Baird (4), Craig Archer (2), Dane McCullough with an impeccably struck left foot piledriver straight into the top corner and Samuel Griffin whose reward for a busy and industrious shift came with an excellent shot that nestled in the back of the Keady net. Final score St.Patrick’s 3-9 PC.
The quarter final game against Cullybackey High at Ballymena Showgrounds proved challenging not only due to the strength of the opposition but also in terms of the conditions. On a snowy and bitterly cold afternoon the PC lads entered the fray fully motivated to secure a semi-final spot. McCullough won the toss and elected to play with the wind in the first half in the hope of establishing a lead that could be defended in the second half. From the beginning the boys were in full control, with Matt Creighton embarking on run after run down the left wing and torturing the Cullybackey defence with quick feet, lightning pace and great vision. Creighton capitalised on the vulnerability of the Cullybackey defensive line seizing the opportunity to score within the first few minutes. Not long after Isaac Baird headed home the College’s second from a perfectly weighted pass by Harry Murphy. Just before half-time Cullybackey began to mount pressure on PC’s back four, with Adam Erwin showing great determination to protect keeper Jack McMurray. A free kick was awarded just outside the box and an outstanding save from the alert and incredibly agile McMurray ensured the two-goal margin was protected. Cullybackey kept pressing and were ultimately rewarded with a goal just before half-time. Game on. After the break Portadown re-grouped and came back to show their class with two cool finishes from Harry Murphy and further goals from Matt Creighton, Tommy Smyth and Craig Archer. The boys were delighted, and it was great to see support from parents on the sideline. A change of keeper fifteen minutes from time saw Alex Gibbons make his first appearance for the College keeping a clean sheet until the end. Well done, Alex.
And so on to Monday 9 March 2020, a desperately wet and miserable day that would see the College either make history or bow out with another ‘so near and yet so far’ performance. The U16 players arrived at Seaview for their semi-final against RBAI in buoyant mood but also wary of the quality of the opposition, the worsening conditions and the absolute need to banish previous disappointment at this stage of the competition. Members of PC’s U18 squad along with parents, other family members and representatives from Portadown FC braved the wind and the rain to support the lads on their big day. A cagey first half ensued with both sides adapting to the difficult playing conditions and the slippery surface. It was evident that PC’s midfield would have to work extremely hard to contain the RBAI attacking threat. Not long before half-time Craig Archer scored from a corner, with Tommy Smyth consolidating the College’s lead with an excellent header not long after. A reshuffle was needed not long after when the talented Harry Murphy had to go off due to sickness. His replacement, Johnny McCullough, showed great concentration throughout restricting the RBAI right-winger’s progress down the flank. Fabulous attitude. Not long into the second half Matt Creighton scored the College’s third goal to put the game virtually out of sight it seemed. Samuel Griffin and Joe Williamson worked tirelessly up and down the wings posing a clear attacking threat each time they were in possession of the ball. For a short time, RBAI did attempt to mount a few attacks, but with Adam Erwin and Calum McShane solid in defence, PC dealt expertly with all that was thrown at them. However, one moment’s lapse in concentration led to RBAI pulling one back and the now two-goal margin did result in an immediate reaction among the College ranks with full concentration required to hold on to the 3-1 lead. A quick substitution saw Adam Neill come off the bench to provide extra legs and shore up the tiring midfield. Late in the game a majestic run by captain Dane McCullough out wide ended with a high, whipped cross to the back post where Isaac Baird arrived on cue to head into the net to secure PC’s passage into the final. A fully deserved victory in the end and a place in the final had been secured. A great effort from all involved.
Coach Mark Andrews said: ‘’It has been a pleasure to watch this team play such attractive football in recent months. Commitment and endeavour have been matched by sheer enjoyment of playing the game. Reaching the final of this competition is a great achievement for the school, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the fantastic coaching at local clubs that the boys receive; knowing one another in a football context outside school always helps with motivation and performance level in school competitions. To bounce back from a penalty shoot-out defeat against local rivals Craigavon Senior High School in the final of the U16 Mid-Ulster Cup, and this after rescuing the match in normal time with two extremely late goals, and to go on to win the RBAI semi three days later shows tremendous strength of character and resilience. Regardless of what happens in relation to the final, the boys can be satisfied with a job well done.’’
Assistant coach and Psychology teacher Mrs Baird said “We wanted to share some good news with the community at this difficult time and to make sure the boys all know that we recognise their incredible achievement. It is disappointing that they have not been able to play their finals, but their achievements will not be forgotten. They have been great ambassadors for the school and are a talented group of footballers”.
PC’s Under 18 squad was also successful this season reaching the final of the NI Plate competition or the first time in the school’s history. Previous semi-final defeats in the main NI Cup competition to St.Patrick’s Academy (Dungannon) and Coleraine Academical Institution as well as Plate semi-final defeats to St.Joseph’s (Londonderry) and most recently last year to Regent House after outplaying the Newtownards outfit for large parts of the game at Seaview were avenged on Wednesday 4 March as PC proudly progressed to the final with opponents RBAI lying in wait.
The campaign began back in October with PC drawn at home to face North West Regional College (Coleraine) in Round 1 of the NI Cup. There was plenty of entertainment on offer with twelve goals in total for the spectators to enjoy. PC came out on top in a mostly one-sided contest with a deserved 9-3 victory. Goals came from Daniel Neill (2), Matthew Willis (2), Lee Upton (2), Stephen Lunn (2) and Bailey Finlay. Upton led his troops well throughout and it was pleasing to see Neill’s switch from last season’s central midfield role to striker, one that he would go on to justify in the months ahead with his energy, commitment and powerful runs into the channels. A notable miss from PC’s starting line-up was that of creative midfielder Harry Evans who had not yet recovered from an injury sustained in pre-season.
An away tie followed in the second round later in October as PC travelled to Belfast to take on Rathmore Grammar in an extremely tight affair which finished in a narrow one nil defeat and an early exit from this year’s competition. PC started the game brightly, but it was evident in these early stages that this strong, fit and well-drilled Rathmore side would prove a much sterner test than PC had faced in Round 1. A nasty head injury to goalkeeper Daniel Mullane in the opening exchanges following a brave sortie to dive at the feet of the Rathmore striker resulted in an early substitution as James Conn came on to replace the hospital bound Mullane. Conn settled well and showed good handling and awareness as the Rathmore attacks mounted. Half time saw PC come in level at 0-0 satisfied with a gutsy first half performance and a desire to produce a little more quality in the final third as the second half got underway. Woods, Finlay and Smyth gave everything in midfield, but PC missed Evans’ guile, invention and slide rule passes to create decent goalscoring opportunities. Chances were few and far between until Rathmore won a free kick just inside the half-way line. A decent delivery was not handled well by the PC defence and Rathmore converted from the ensuing melee on the edge of the area. A bitter blow for PC and with tired legs and fewer probing attacks, an equaliser looked increasingly unlikely. Rathmore eventually ran out 1-0 victors in a game characterised by frequent stoppages and some questionable refereeing decisions. Best on the day for PC was Morgan Smyth whose elegant runs in-field from his position at right-back to win numerous free-kicks in dangerous areas kept the Rathmore backline on its toes.
With automatic entry into the Plate competition guaranteed, PC travelled to Holm Park, Armagh to take on Darragh Peden’s Southern Regional College side in late November. A much-improved performance saw PC through with a comfortable 3-0 win. With Evans back from injury the link-up between midfield and strikers was restored. Willis began to receive more ball on the flank and his penetrating runs into the box constituted a major threat throughout the game. With Evans, Willis and Neill on the scoresheet and a flawless performance from Upton, Smyth, McPolin and Irwin at the back, PC looked a more settled outfit. A last-16 tie beckoned.
Methodist College provided the opposition in Round 2 of the Plate at QUB Playing Fields on Monday 9 December. Five different PC players managed to get on the scoresheet in a game that was decided early as PC went into an early lead from which Methody simply could not recover. Early substitutions saw Upton (cold) and Evans (precautionary) replaced by Reid and Burns. Reid claimed the final goal late on following a well-timed interception and a cool finish inside the area. Goal of the game, however, came from the industrious Ryan Woods who unleashed an unstoppable 25-yard drive into the roof of the net midway through the second half. Although not the most useful contest for the boys, it was still pleasing to perform well, score plenty of goals and keep a clean sheet.
With the Christmas holidays and January examinations behind them PC had to wait until early February before taking the field again against Lumen Christi (Londonderry) at Brownstown Park in the quarter-final of the Plate competition. A motivated PC started the game well with some good attacks involving Harry Evans and Matthew Willis. The College eventually took the lead with a powerful shot from striker Dan Neill, after clever play by Willis on the edge of the area. A second goal came soon after following a good move that ended with Willis converting after deftly cutting in from the left flank on to his stronger right foot. The Derry side reduced the deficit early in the second half before Dan Neill’s second goal restored PC’s two goal advantage. As Lumen Christi continued to play out from the back PC’s pressing game paid off with the award of a penalty late in the game expertly dispatched by midfield maestro Harry Evans to secure a comprehensive win. A dominant performance leading the line, two superbly taken goals and clear justification of the decision to switch to his new role helped the talented Daniel Neill to a Man of the Match performance. And so on to another semi-final at U18 level for PC, whose pedigree in NI Schools football had undoubtedly grown with a second consecutive semi-final appearance. Surely a win was on the cards this year to banish the tag of gallant semi-final losers?
Wednesday 4 March saw PC travel to Kilmore Rec FC in Crossgar to take on St.Colman’s (Ballynahinch) in the semi-final. A cagey opening in front of a large crowd produced few chances with each side aiming to unlock the other’s weakness. The lively St.Colman’s front man showed great running strength and competed admirably in the early stages trying to force the commanding Upton into an early error. The PC defensive line stood firm and as the attacks mounted, it seemed likely that PC would make the breakthrough first. Indeed, once the College opened the scoring through Willis and then quickly added a second, it was clear that the St.Colman’s challenge would not last. A comfortable 2-0 half-time lead was extended early in the second half following great anticipation from Lunn as captain Upton made a rare run deep into the opponent’s half to hook a ball back for the speedy wide man to pounce and convert from close range. Upton himself, having enjoyed his foraging in the final third, was then rewarded for his fine play with a goal soon after to cap a memorable display. Credit goes to to St.Colman’s for their effort late in the game as they were rewarded with a goal before Neill added an exquisitely taken fifth to send PC into the final with a comprehensive 5-1 victory.
Coach Mark Andrews said ‘’Huge congratulations to the boys, especially after last year’s 2-1 defeat to Regent in the semi-final. The ability to keep going and to believe that success will eventually come is so important in football. It is particularly rewarding for those Year 14 stalwarts whose commitment to school football has been exemplary over a four-year period. They deserve this.’’
So, after a memorable year for PC football that was halted in mid-March due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, PC U16 and U18 squads still wait to take the field in their respective finals. Whether they are played or not in the future remains to be seen. Highly unlikely, one might say. In the meantime, there are many fond memories and the satisfaction of knowing that the 2019/2020 season brought more success to PC football than ever before.
Well done lads!
U16 squad on semi-final day
L/R Back Row: Scorers: M.Creighton C.Archer I.Baird &T.Smyth
A.Gibbons, D.Brown C.Rees A.Potts J.McCullough A.Neill A.Erwin
C.Archer C.McShane I.Baird J.McMurray
L/R Front Row:
D.Greer S.Griffin D.McCullough H.Murphy T.Smyth J.Williamson
U18 squad on semi-final day
L/R Back Row: Scorers; D.Neill L.Upton S.Lunn & M.Willis
C.Reid R.Woods B.Farquhar S.Lunn D.Mullane B.Finlay J.Smth
L/R Front Row:
D.Neill M.Willis J.Conn R Burns J.Stevenson C.Irwin H.Evans