Cliftonville’s Rory and Ronan Hale reflect on Irish Cup glory

Hale brother re-live one of the greatest matches in Cliftonville’s history

Cliftonville brother Ronan and Rory Hale pictured in Newtington in North Belfast after wining the Irish Cup.
Cliftonville brother Ronan and Rory Hale pictured in Newtington in North Belfast after wining the Irish Cup. COLM LENAGHAN

IT’S a sluggish Monday morning along the lower Antrim Road. Brothers Rory and Ronan Hale are sitting at one of the bay windows of Caifé Ceoil, just around the corner from their native Newington, enjoying a coffee.

It’s been party central in the Red parts of north Belfast for over a week now following Cliftonville’s famous Irish Cup final win over Linfield, the club’s first since 1979.

Red and white bunting still flutters in different streets. The Hale brothers loved every minute of the last nine days, but life has slowly slipped back to normal.

Rory is back trawling through Tik-Tok and Instagram trying to unearth a couple of nuggets for his coaching school.

Ronan, who also takes sessions at RH Coaching, has enjoyed spending quality time with his seven-year-old daughter Mya since their epic finale to the season and is waiting on his partner to give birth to their second child any day now.

Since Cliftonville’s most famous Irish Cup win, the brothers’ lives have been positively mental.

Ronan Hale’s magic hat, Rory starting the umpteenth sing-song, Joe Gormley losing his voice, Chrissy Curran wearing the broadest smile of the lot and Odhran Casey hobbling around on crutches.

Rory and Ronan have had their backs slapped off them ever since they reached the Holy Grail at Windsor Park.

The team bus tour around Belfast on the Bank Holiday Monday was unforgettable.

It took in Red Army hotspots such as Cassidy’s Bar, breezing through Royal Avenue, on to the Market Community Centre, horns blasting everywhere, up the Ormeau Road to the Rose and Crown before swinging by the Devenish Complex, across to the Rock Bar on the Falls Road, then to the Glenpark Inn just off the Oldpark Road and finally docking at beautiful Solitude.

It’s true that some bus tours are better than others. Beaming smiles are etched on the Hale brothers’ faces when you ask them to recount the best moments on the big red double-decker bus a week earlier.

Two-goal cup final hero Ronan says: “Our first stop was Cassidy’s which is where we’re from.

“It was a brilliant feeling seeing my mummy and my wee girl there too.

“One of the faces that stood out for me was our old PE teacher Mr McGuinness [from St Patrick’s College, Bearnageeha] and he had a big flag saying: ‘Barney Boys on Tour’. He was buzzing for us. It was great seeing so many people that have supported us through the times.”

“The whole Limestone Road was absolutely packed with fans, the Devenish as well,” Rory says.

“I know it was a Bank Holiday but for a Monday the numbers that came out were incredible.

“Even going through the city centre, Royal Avenue, people were waving up at us and not knowing who they were. It was an absolutely amazing feeling.”

Cliftonville celebrate with the fans during an open top bus tour across Belfast after winning the Irish Cup oat Windsor on Saturday.
Cliftonville’s Rory Hale celebrates with the fans during an open top bus tour across Belfast two days after winning the Irish Cup PICTURE: COLM LENAGAN
Cliftonville celebrate with the fans during an open top bus tour across Belfast after winning the Irish Cup oat Windsor on Saturday.
Cliftonville Rory and Ronan Hale outside Cassidy's Bar beside where they live PICTURE: COLM LENAGAN
Saturday May 4, 2024: Irish Cup final day

RORY didn’t need an alarm. He slept soundly until 6am. Once he woke, he was never drifting off to sleep again.

Rory: “I’d normally be up at 8am but I woke at six. I just couldn’t wait.”

Ronan: “I got up at 5am. I stuck my earphones in and listened to music and that was me ready to rock.

“My girlfriend and my daughter didn’t wake up until 10 and I was leaving at half-10. I was just sitting there thinking about the game and thinking of what I was going to do.”

Rory called up one of his best friends and they went to Starbucks for a coffee.

Rory says: “There was a bit of extra pressure because you’ve family and your mates who are involved in the club who were saying: ‘We need you two more than ever to perform.’”

The Cliftonville squad met at 10.30am at Ten Square Hotel at the back of the City Hall. Four hours to kill until kick-off.

Rory noticed Chris Curran, the club captain, was just pushing a piece of chicken around his plate.

‘Are you not eating?’ Rory asked.

‘Am I making it that noticeable?’ Chris replied.

“Chris Curran has won everything in the game,” says Rory. “This was his last game, and he was a bag of nerves and not even starting the final. I think everybody was nervous.”

Rory would be one of the livelier members of the Reds squad and, by his own admission, wouldn’t shut up before games.

“I was thinking, if the players see me as their captain on the day, looking nervous, that starts to put a bit of doubt into their heads.

“When I’m walking about joking and laughing and telling the players, ‘We’re gonna win today,’ others thrive off that. I couldn’t let other people know I’m nervous, but I was also thinking about what I was going to do in the game.”

The backroom team put up roughly a four-minute video, entitled ‘The Skipper and the Scorer’, which was a moving compilation of Joe Gormley and Chris Curran’s best moments wearing the blood-red jersey over the last decade or more.

“I swear, I sat there with goosebumps watching it,” Rory says.

“If we were going to do it for anybody, go out and do it for these two men.

“It was an unbelievable video.”

Nothing really needed to be said to the players at the hotel.

Jim Magilton and Gerard Lyttle had covered all bases in the lead-up to the final with Linfield.

“Before a game Jim wouldn’t speak much,” Ronan says. “He wants his leaders to speak and that’s when Rory and ‘Skip’ [Chris Curran] all come into it.”

“No question went unanswered in the build-up regarding shape, tactics, everything - everything was done to a tee and it was the same for the Larne semi-final,” says Rory.

“The preparation was one million per cent. Every single scenario, Jim had an answer.

“I’m learning so much from Jim and ‘Skin’, not just as a player but as a coach.

“One thing Jim has taught me this year is, I always made these third man runs but I was always making them while standing beside the centre back. He wanted me to run from deep, just small stuff like that.”

Some players need an arm around the shoulder - but Rory has never been one of them.

“Jim would come up to me and just give me a big slap on the face with those big hands of his and say: ‘I need you here.’”

Rory also credits fitness coach Ricky McCann for improving his stamina levels this season.

The former Aston Villa player wanted to cover every blade of grass twice over in games and often did the work of two men, but as a result he was tiring in the final quarter.

“Ricky said that wasn’t happening this year and I have to give huge credit to him because I don’t think I would have reached 90 minutes without him.

“With my coaching workload during the week, he’s monitored me more than anyone else in the team. He’s got the best out of me and I’m able to last 90 minutes near enough every single week. I don’t think I’ve played as much in my life.”

The first 25 minutes of the 2024 Irish Cup final couldn’t have gone much worse for Cliftonville. Ethan McGee headed the Blues deservedly in front and they should have been further ahead with the amount of possession they had around the Reds penalty area.

What could go wrong did go wrong for the underdogs.

Goalkeeper David Odumosu and Odhran Casey (broken ankle) were forced out of the game before half-time while Joel Cooper and Kirk Millar were hurting Magilton’s team down the sides.

Rory recalls: “In the opening 25 minutes I was saying to myself: ‘Come on to f*** - what’s going on with these boys here?’ But you forget – he’s 19, he’s 20, he’s 22 - the older players needed to guide them into the game, and we did that.

“I didn’t want the first half to end because we were starting to build momentum and started getting our big players on the ball higher up the pitch.”

Rory Hale was one of the few Cliftonville players who seemed unaffected by the occasion – and once Ronan Doherty started to find some rhythm and Jonny Addis forced a higher defensive line, strikers Ronan Hale and Sam Ashford were engaged in the play.

Cliftonville Ronan Hale  celebrates his goal     In todays   game  in Windsor Pk Belfast Cliftonville v Linfield in the Clearer Water irish Cup Final  4/5\/24  Pacemaker Press
Cliftonville's Ronan Hale celebrates in the Irish Cup final (Desmond Loughery/Pacemaker Press)

In the early throes of the second half, the Reds were level when Ashford glanced home Rory Hale’s inch-perfect cross from the right before the younger Hale took centre stage in extra-time.

“I can’t really remember the game,” Ronan says. “I only remember parts of it.

“One of the touches I remember was [Daniel] Finlayson came into me and I turned him inside and I’ve played ‘Ollie’ [Ronan Doherty] in and I think he put it over the bar...

“Games are always won and lost in the two penalty areas and, luckily, I’ve cut in and put one in the top corner.”

Linfield ransacked their bench and threw on as many strikers as possible in a bid to draw level - but the Cliftonville defence stood strong despite a host of players falling to the ground with cramp, to the point where those last few frantic minutes were reminiscent of scenes from the movie Saving Private Ryan.

Ben Wilson played a key role in one of the most famous victories in Cliftonville’s history.

Having set up Ronan Hale for his first goal in the opening period of extra-time, the Derry man beat Linfield goalkeeper Chris Johns to a loose ball on the edge of the Cliftonville 18-yard box and sent the Newington man on the path to immortality with seconds remaining.

Hands out-stretched and with a quick glance over his shoulder, realising that Linfield substitute Joshua Archer was never catching him, Ronan Hale took four touches of the ball before rolling it into the empty net.

The sea of red in the West Stand, formerly the Spion Kop, pulled the 25-year-old striker into their bosom and into each of their hearts.

“Running towards the fans, I was milking it as much as I could,” Ronan smiles, “because you’ll never get that chance again in an Irish Cup final - running the ball into an open net. It was amazing.

“There was that much going through my head, I was just thinking, don’t miss or slip.

“I think it will always be the highlight of my career now. It was knowing that everyone belonging to me was in the stand. Every touch I was taking, the crowd was getting louder.

“I was actually going to shoot from a distance out, but I didn’t think my leg would hold up. As soon as I touched it, I was going to pass it in [from distance] but then I just kept dribbling.

“It was the anticipation; everyone knew I was scoring but they couldn’t celebrate until I did. It was the loudness of the crowd and then when I finally put it in, it was just elation. It was unbelievable.”

Ronan adds: “The first person that got to me was Joe Gormley. He slid right into my kneecap. When he hugged me on the ground, he just said: ‘We did it.’”

Cliftonville had reached the Promised Land and the two Hale brothers – always two big-game players – were immense in ending the club’s 45-year wait to win the Irish Cup again.

Cliftonville brother Ronan and Rory Hale pictured in Newtington in North Belfast after wining the Irish Cup.
Cliftonville brother Ronan and Rory Hale at home in Newington Picture: COLM LENAGHAN

JUST over six years ago, I sat down with Rory and Ronan Hale in a local café on the lower Antrim Road. Rory was 21, Ronan 19. Both had their hearts set on playing full-time professional football in England.

Rory had spent four happy years at Aston Villa. He was a regular trainer with the first team until Steve Bruce called him into his office at the end of the season and told him he was being released.

“I remember not wanting to come home at all,” Rory says. “I remember thinking: ‘You’re a failure’. I didn’t say that out loud and you feel you’ve let everybody down. But you haven’t.”

He trialled for several clubs, but he was still reeling from Villa’s rejection.

“I remember going to Cambridge and played a friendly against Norwich and I was shite, absolutely shite. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, and I remember going to Dundee United and I was thinking, this is not for me.”

Shane Keegan offered him regular football at Galway United. For those few months, he starred for the League of Ireland strugglers before moving on to Derry City, later to Crusaders and finally landing at his spiritual home of Cliftonville Football Club.

“I remember thinking: if I do shit at Galway, who were in the relegation zone, there is nowhere else to go here. So, I really needed to step up and I did.”

At Crusaders, there was talk of another cross-channel move but a medial ligament injury sustained away to Dungannon just before the January window and the onset of COVID ended those hopes.

Rory adds: “I try to prepare the kids I coach that if it doesn’t work out for you, it’s not the end of the world, and that you can still have a good career in the Irish League which is improving all the time.”

Ronan has always been a prolific scorer and won a four-year contract with Birmingham City at 17.

“I was like, I made it already,” Ronan says. “And then the best part of my life, my daughter comes along and that was the main reason for coming home.

“I still had six months left on my Birmingham deal and I completed a year loan with Derry City (where he played with Rory) and I loved it. It was first team football.

“I went back to Birmingham after that to give it a crack but after being with my daughter for six months it was too hard to leave her. I was sitting in my flat, 18-years of age, on my own, and I thought, no, it’s not for me.

“I’ve had an alright career. I wish I had given it another crack in England, but things happen in life. I’ve no back-up plan at the minute.

“It’s football or nothing for me and that’s why I want to give it another go. It would kill me not to have another crack.

“I’m happy back home. I’ve got my family, but I look at the bigger picture and my main income is football and that’s where you’ve got to make as much money as you can. If something comes along, great, but if it doesn’t, I’m playing some of my best football up at Cliftonville and I couldn’t be happier.”

Rory’s fanatical desire is to win a league championship with Cliftonville over the coming seasons. And if he’s trying to achieve it with his young brother by his side, he’ll be even happier.

Since they were kids, Rory and Ronan’s pursuit of sporting excellence has never dimmed. Their greatest achievement is their insatiable work ethic and being able to squeeze every last drop of potential out of themselves.

Rory Hale has been the best player in local football by some distance in the season just past and more the fool who wouldn’t take a punt on a guaranteed goal-getter like Ronan Hale.

No matter what they do between now and the end of their bright footballing careers, no-one will forget what the Hale brothers did on Saturday May 4, 2024, at Windsor Park.

Authors of the most wonderful fairytale and footballers with warrior hearts, their names will forever be etched in the hearts and minds of every Red Army supporter.

Rory and Ronan Hale have quickly emerged as key players at Seaview Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Brothers Rory and Ronan Hale Picture: Margaret McLaughlin