Newry AFC City's remarkable achievement reminds us of the power of sport
IN the fading light on the Glen Road in 1986, Cromac Albion reached the Holy Grail.
Sean O’Kane’s late goal that clinched the Amateur League Division 1A title remains the most exhilarating sporting moment in my life.
I wasn’t playing. I was just a kid, the manager’s son, the mascot, who never missed a game, who filled the water bottles, who acted as ball boy, and whose dream was to wear the green jersey of Cromac Albion.
Probably my most important role at Cromac was ball boy, especially at our home games at the old Cross & Passion school on the Glen Road in west Belfast because there was a steep hill behind one goal where the ball would inevitably roll down and cause a thousand stoppages.
If Cromac were behind in games I’d be stationed behind the goal with a spare ball so that the opposition couldn’t waste time.
On this balmy mid-week night, the league title race had come down to a straight shoot-out between Killyleagh and Cromac Albion.
Killyleagh only needed a draw to win the title. Cromac needed to win.
Both sidelines were heaving with supporters.
Still scoreless with 10 minutes remaining, in the mind's eye, I can still see ‘Mousey’ Irvine hanging in the air and heading the ball back across Killyleagh’s goal.
Sean O’Kane, who went on to play for Cliftonville, was poacher supreme.
From a tight angle, the Markets man hammered the ball into Killyleagh’s net.
I was six feet away. I can still hear the wicked sound of the ball hitting the net and the delayed roar from the Cromac supporters.
Thirty-two years later, nothing touches that moment for sheer joy.
Years later, Newington gained promotion to the Amateur League Premier Division on goal difference.
We scored one goal more than rivals Rosario that proved the difference.
I know the amount of work that we put into gaining promotion that season.
Just like I have an idea of how the Donegal Celtic players and their manager Paddy Kelly felt the night they climbed the highest mountain by beating Institute at Drumahoe to win a place in the Irish Premiership.
Or when the news broke that Donegal Celtic and Lurgan Celtic would be granted admission into the Irish League ranks.
In those years Barry Douglas was Lurgan Celtic.
He marked the pitch at Grattan Park, he fund-raised, he washed the kit, he recruited players, he picked the team and he got the Equality Commission on board and issued court proceedings against the Irish League to gain admission.
Barry Douglas single-handedly broke down barriers.
Sport can provide us with some of the best moments in our lives.
I have an idea what the Newry AFC City players, management, committee members and supporters must be feeling after they reached their own Holy Grail on Wednesday night by winning promotion to the Irish Premiership.
Their story will be one of the greatest ever told.
Five years ago, current manager Darren Mullen and a few friends decided to resurrect the old Irish League club after it went out of existence in 2012.
Everyone around the town felt Mullen and co were wasting their time.
Newry City was a beaten docket.
The Newry Showgrounds had fallen into disrepair. During their first meeting, committee members were forced to move to another part of the room due to a leaking roof.
Mullen remembers typing up a new club constitution in his bedroom and driving around Newry trying to “gather up a team”.
It was pipe dream stuff.
Before the club disbanded, Mullen was in line to become first team manager but it looked as though the chance of doing a job he dreamed of doing had passed him by.
Against the odds, Newry AFC City were reformed and they took up an invite from the Mid-Ulster League.
“I remember our first game against Bourneview YM,” says Mullen, “and our supporters’ bus arriving and putting the flags up around a Mid-Ulster ground. It was great to see that. That was a big step.”
With the likes of Raymie Burns, Mickey Keenan, Jervis McCaul and Gary Boyle putting their shoulders to the Newry wheel, the club were promoted a staggering four times in five years.
On Wednesday night, they defeated Carrick Rangers in a promotion/relegation play-off.
The Newry club had hoped to be back in the Premiership in 10 years. They did it in five.
All the club’s players are from the area. They don’t get paid to play for Newry. They pay to play for Newry - £5 each per week.
On the road up to Carrick Rangers on Wednesday night, Mickey Keenan collected £90 from the players on the team bus.
Carrick’s weekly budget is estimated to be around £3,000.
Newry’s remarkable rise shows the power of sport. Everyone associated with the club has contributed to lifting the esteem of a community.
There will be people walking around the town today with a spring in their step because of the result of a football match.
People will stop each other in the street and say what a great job that young lad Mullen has done.
That is the power of sport.
That's what can happen when you assemble an ambitious, determined group with a common goal.
Good people make great teams.
In an interview with The Irish News in December 2016, Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny said: “It’s about the value of community and the impact a team can have on a community. It can’t be underestimated.”
The Brass Monkey and the Canal Court will do a blinding trade over the next few days as the players, management and supporters try to make sense of what they’ve achieved.
The history of Irish sport is littered with heart-warming, against-the-odds tales.
Newry AFC City's story trumps them all.
Well done Darren Mullen. Well done, indeed.
Your father, Raymie, would have been a proud man.