Memories and the unrivalled romance of the Steel & Sons Cup
ONE hundred yards away cars rush by so fast.
My father’s view is actually quite majestic. Away to his right, the Cavehill towers over north Belfast like a monarch overlooking his fiefdom.
You’d like to stay longer but the cold bites mercilessly into your marrow.
This is where the souls of the departed rest.
There are stories beneath every gravestone.
In life, my father had two passions: football and horses.
On the day of their Steel & Sons Cup semi-final a couple of weeks ago, my younger brother Conor paid my father a visit.
Maybe it was for luck. Maybe it was just to tell him that his team - Newington Football Club - were 90 minutes away from playing in the Steel Cup final on Christmas morning.
At some point or other, every son follows in his father's footsteps.
For every intermediate footballer, the Steel & Sons Cup has always been the Holy Grail.
There is something magical about the Steel Cup, an intangible quality that no other competition can touch.
It’s probably a lot to do with the fact that the final is played on Christmas morning.
Thousands of supporters and neutrals descend on Seaview where the air is heavily scented by whiskey and hamburgers.
I remember running around the muddy field of Cross & Passion School up in the Glen Road, in the pitch dark, deep in November.
I remember Colm Quinn, Cromac Albion’s left-back, urging his team-mates to run harder and that every training session counted between now and their Steel & Sons Cup semi-final with Glentoran II back in 1989.
Cromac Albion, of course, won their first-ever Steel Cup in 1978, beating Ballyclare Comrades after a replay.
My father, who joined the Amateur League club in the mid-80s as manager, never experienced winning the Steel & Sons Cup.
It was the competition he dearly wanted to win above all others.
A primary target every pre-season was to reach a Steel Cup final.
Just to experience it once – the build-up, the big crowd and surreal atmosphere - so that you could show the faded yellow photographs to your grandchildren.
My father guided Cromac Albion to back-to-back Amateur League titles - but bringing his team to Seaview on Christmas morning always seemed out of reach.
The closest they came was in ’89.
Under the notoriously shady floodlights of Ballyskeagh, Cromac were leading the Wee Glens 1-0 up until the closing stages.
Flooded with first team players on the night, including Geordie Neil and Norman McGreevy, Gary Hillis broke Cromac hearts with a late equaliser – and the striker was on target again in extra-time to see the Glens through to the Steel final, where they cruised to a 4-1 win over East Belfast.
That was Cromac Albion’s last meaningful stab at Steel Cup glory.
A couple of years later the club folded due to a lack of facilities.
As the years rolled by this curious love affair with the Steel & Sons grew stronger for me.
Every time you crashed out of the early rounds of the Steel Cup felt like a depression.
It was the kind of defeat that you wouldn’t recover from for several weeks.
Each Christmas morning I’d be among the Seaview crowd to watch and wonder what it must be like to be part of such a brilliant occasion.
Dundela were in more Steel Cup finals than they care to remember.
Mervyn Bell, the club’s long-serving manager, was a master at winning the competition.
And when Bell – one of the true gentlemen of the game - stepped down after more than 30 years in charge, Mark Snodden stepped in and continued Dundela’s rich tradition in the competition.
I watched Brantwood win the trophy.
I saw Kilmore Rec get their hands on the silverware.
Dee Heron’s Killyleagh reached the Promised Land. So too did Paddy Kelly’s Donegal Celtic, denying Killyleagh back-to-back Steel Cups.
And the long-suffering Fred Magee finally saw his beloved H&W Welders get over the line at Seaview in 2010.
In the early ‘Noughties’, both Eamonn McCarthy and I guided Newington to the Steel & Sons Cup quarter-finals in our first year in charge.
We went down 3-2 to Bangor at Muckamore Park. We deserved better on the day.
So, too, did our two midfielders Danny Hale and Liam ‘Bogey’ Bradley who were magnificent.
This Christmas morning, Newington will play in their first-ever Steel & Sons Cup final against holders Linfield Swifts.
Newington has had better teams in the past - which kind of makes the current team’s achievement more special.
I’d like to think my brother’s visit to my father’s graveside that afternoon helped them overcome Crumlin United in the semi-finals.
The magnitude of Newington's feat didn’t really hit home until I read Eamonn Hawkins’ tweet later that Friday evening.
Eamonn played mostly summer football for my father’s teams back in the 1980s.
His tweet read: ‘Well done, Conor. Your father will be a proud man tonight.’
So many people - past and present Newington members - have laid a brick on the road to this year's Steel Cup final.
Danny Hale. Danny Walsh. Frankie Campbell. The Reids. Rab Martin (RIP). Eamonn McCarthy. Big Burnsy. Hamo. Denis Sweeney. Eddie Casey. Peter Hynes. Vladimir, the flying Dutchman. Gerry Quinn. Thomas Duffy. The Duffys. Paul McCreadie (RIP). The Kellys. Bucko. James McCaff. Mickey Pierce. Sean Adams. Colm McGuigan. Airmail. Seanie Hughes.
Every reserve team and youth team manager, and every assistant they ever had who gave their time.
For a club like Newington, the road is always tough.
Christmas morning shall be a celebration of all those people.
And not forgetting the son who always wanted to make his father proud.