Brendan Crossan: Irish Cup minnows Newington - a club built on ceaseless volunteerism

NIFL chief Gerard Lawlor shows unmatched leadership in Casement debate

Newington celebrate their 2017 Steel & Sons Cup success following a 1-0 win over Linfield Swifts. The two sides will face one another for a third time in four years in Steel finals
Newington celebrate their 2017 Steel & Sons Cup success following a 1-0 win over Linfield Swifts. The two sides will face one another for a third time in four years in Steel finals Newington have climbed their way up the ranks, having claimed two Steel Cups and a PIL title, and face Larne in Saturday's Irish Cup quarter-finals

LAST week, Newington FC nut Chris White asked me to write a piece for the club’s social media pages. The deal is simple. When a selfless club volunteer like big Whitey asks you to do something, you can’t refuse.

After all, this man has rapped a thousand doors in north Belfast selling ballots to help fund his beloved club. And there are many like him.

I spent the last few years of my trundling playing career at Newington before helping on the sidelines.

Newington is like The Firm: you never get to leave. Not that anyone ever wanted to leave in the first place.

Since Colum Burns stepped down as club chairman after 150 years of service, he’s attended more matches than ever before. You see, a community club like Newington grips your senses and never lets go of them.

Eighteen years ago, Newington played Larne in an Irish Cup quarter-final and by a strange twist of fate the two clubs will meet again at the same stage of the competition tomorrow at Inver Park - an amiable place where Newington now play their home games.

It’s worth scanning the club’s social media where old footage of that 2006 Irish Cup clash has resurfaced.

At the time, BBCNI hopped on Newington’s Irish Cup bandwagon and charted the build-up to the Larne game.

Ex-boss Eamonn McCarthy built a quality side in the mid-Noughties and although they fell to a 96th minute stoppage-time goal from Larne’s Aaron Black that March afternoon, it was really only the start of a new dynasty at the north Belfast club as they claimed five Amateur League Premier Section titles, a Border Cup and an historic Irish Cup victory over Glentoran in 2012.

Time is a merciless line and while all those brilliant players who appeared on that grainy footage up at Inver in ‘06 have long since retired, the stamina of Newington Football Club is endless.

Forever the underdog, the ‘Ton, as they are affectionately known locally, are still enjoying local football’s high life. Now competing in the thinner air of The Championship, just one rung below senior football, they’re still winning more than they’re losing.

They’re still delivering silverware - two Steel & Sons Cups and a Premier Intermediate League title - in recent seasons. And, more importantly, they’re still powered by a ceaseless volunteerism that knows no bounds.

When you attend a Newington game, the club volunteers are like ants around the place. Everyone has a role.

Paddy Curley and club physio John Boyle will be up at the ground bright as a lark, sorting everything from flags to Veo to jerseys and maintaining the changing rooms before and after games.

On match-day, brothers and ex-players Patrick and Michael Pierce and Chris White have a thousand jobs between them from selling ballots, doing the gate, laying out sandwiches, making tea at half-time and offering a warm welcome to opposition fans.

Colm McGrath is health & safety officer and club photographer. Fintan, Colm’s son, is ball boy along with Gerard Crossan, Corey Duffy and a host of youth team players.

Robert McCabe does security and if his uncle Paul Hamilton and Conor Crossan allow him, he’ll deliver the real team-talk before the team-talk amid the clatter of football boots and pungent smell of wintergreen.

Thomas Duffy doesn’t have time to bless himself. He’s chairman, head of academy, U18 manager and assistant first team manager.

And there’s Joe Macklin, Paul Gibson, big ‘Burnsy’ - everyone pitches in, contributing.

Of course, football has changed since 2006 when Newington almost pulled off an almighty Irish Cup upset. The tactics, fitness, playing styles, players’ habits. It’s all a bit more sophisticated than before.

But what will never change is the sense of community that Newington Football Club conjures. Everybody belongs here.

It’s a place where good people continue to do good things after all these years. On and off the field.

Of course, they face mission improbable against Tiernan Lynch’s awesome Larne team - now there’s a man who’s walked in underdog shoes for most his managerial career – but this Newington team likes mountains.

In all my time watching team sport, I’ve yet to witness a group of players that work harder and who give themselves over completely to the collective.

On the eve of another special day, this is a snapshot of Newington.

A club that forever nourishes the soul.

NIFL chief Gerard Lawlor has eyes on the bigger picture...

THE most impressive act of leadership emerging from the many conversations revolving around the rebuilding of Casement Park came from Gerard Lawlor this week.

Few commentators have been able to pull back the lens as adeptly and see the bigger picture better than the Northern Ireland Football League chief.

Like many narratives out there, the Casement Park discourse has become warped in parts insofar as if you’re a football person you mightn’t feel you can fully embrace the proposed 34,500 state-of-the-art stadium in west Belfast because of the hysteria, that it’s not the ‘home of football’ - and therefore hosting Euro 2028 at a ‘GAA ground’ isn’t worth it.

Since Lawlor assumed the NIFL reins three years ago, the marketing and profile of Irish League football has never been better.

A case-study is the once unassuming, slightly ailing competition, the League Cup.

In recent seasons, NIFL has transformed the tournament and its showpiece final now rivals the Irish Cup final in audience and prestige.

NIFL officials have pressed the flesh, made influential club officials think outside the box, engaged with the media in creative ways, encouraged games to be played across Friday, Saturday and Sundays, elevated the profile of the Women’s Premiership and increased local football’s market share.

Lawlor is also batting hard for Irish League clubs in trying to get a significant increase on the £36.2m ringfenced money from Stormont and in Thursday’s Irish News made several persuasive arguments to that end.

Gerard Lawlor says local football's circuit breaker will be for only two weeks
Gerard Lawlor says local football's circuit breaker will be for only two weeks Gerard Lawlor sees the bigger picture

When others have conjured an unhelpful dichotomy between rebuilding Casement Park and the sub-regional stadia upgrade fund, to use a football analogy, Lawlor has kept it simple and rightly sees no contradiction in supporting both projects, both of which are tied into the same purse strings of the Department of Communities.

In sporting terms, Lawlor sees a new Casement Park as a shared space - a sentiment echoed by new GAA President Jarlath Burns and the Ulster Council.

In an impassioned interview in The Irish News, Lawlor said: “I’m from north Belfast, I’m football orientated and not GAA. But what I see here is the chance to provide a sporting arena. Future generations won’t forgive us if we don’t build it. Let’s not sit in 15 or 20 years and think: ‘If only.’”

Amen to that.