Aquinas FC: From humble beginnings to reaching 50

The 1970 Aquinas team and winners of Down & Connor Football League. Pictured are (Back Row, l-r) Frank O`Connor (Manager), Brendan Wright, Sean McKay, Des Brennan, Tonino Crawford, Jimmy Roberts, Terry McQuillan, David Currie. (Front Row l-r): Jimmy Nellins, Ray Brennan, Ray Beattie, Kieran O`Hagan, Paul Doyle, Peter Shields, Barry Kennedy

FIFTY years ago a group of kids used to sneak onto the grass hockey pitch behind Aquinas Hall off the Stranmillis Road and kick a football until the light faded.

On Saturday night at Belfast’s City Hall, the great and the good of Aquinas Football Club will celebrate its 50th birthday and remember the people who gave those kids direction, a chance to play organised football and be part of something bigger than themselves.

One of those kids, Des Brennan, who will attend the club’s birthday bash on Saturday evening, never imagined it would still be around today after such humble beginnings.

“It’ll be history on Saturday night,” says Des, who moved up the ranks to play for Cliftonville and won a handful of Northern Ireland school boy caps before returning to his Aquinas roots as a coach.

“There will be a lot of emotion reflecting on when we were 15 and 16-year-olds and playing about in the streets and now we’re grandparents and we’re seeing young players still being developed by the club. I would never have expected a wee street team to grow to the size it is today. It’ll be a great occasion at the City Hall on Saturday.”

Club stalwart Stevie Martin was around in 1969 when Aquinas was born and credits the likes of club president Jim Fitzpatrick, Frank O’Connor and John Cassidy as the main drivers in the early days.

Stevie recalls: “When the civil disturbance broke out in in August ’69 instructions came down from the diocese of Down & Connor to the individual parishes that if you didn’t have some sort of youth organisation going on, get something going straight away.

“Jim Fitzpatrick and John Cassidy helped set the club up. John set up the South Belfast League with about six teams. Jim was working as a voluntary worker with Immaculata through the Legion of Mary and he brought over Jim McKee [Immaculata clubman] to help set up the U14 group and get them started.

“And then there was a gentleman called Frank O’Connor, who is no longer with us, a native of Downpatrick. Frank had a wee flat on the front of the Stranmillis Road and I remember sometimes on a Friday night the whole U16 panel would be crammed into his wee flat to get all the details and to decide what was happening the next day.”

Two teams were pulled together in August ’69 - U14s and U16s. The U16s played their first competitive match the following month, losing 3-2 to neighbours Rosario.

Soon, Aquinas had youth teams competing in the Down & Connor Football League and the South Belfast League, conceived by John Cassidy.

From their inception, the Aquinas boys held their own, with the 1993 class winning three South Belfast Leagues in a row.

Thanks to the quiet interventions from people like Fitzpatrick and O’Connor, Aquinas teams flourished and soon entered an adult team into the well-known Belfast & District League where they climbed to the top league before gaining admission into the prestigious Amateur Football League.

They played out of various bases including the YMCA at Stranmillis and currently avail of the 4G facility at Rathmore Grammar. Under the guiding hands of John McCormick and Noel McKee, the club’s first team continues to raise standards and are now competing in Division 1B of the Amateur League after several promotions.

To accommodate its burgeoning club membership, Aquinas created a third adult team that is making its debut in the Belfast & District and have a plethora of youth teams.

“The 50th anniversary night is going to be absolutely incredible. I’ve managed to get three guys who played U14 in the club’s first match back in 1969 and four guys who played U16 on the first day,” says Stevie Martin.

“It goes to show the friends that you make in football are friends for life. I’ve gone from a 15-year-old to an old-age pensioner with Aquinas and loved every minute of it.”

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