Many congratulations to our year 10 soccer squad in finishing runners-up in the Allen McKinstry 5 Nations British Isles Championship last week.

Our squad of sixteen players all played a huge role in qualifying for the Final of this illustrious competition by reaching the NI Cup Final last year and again during our victories in the opening games of the competition against the Welsh & Scottish Champions.

Massive underdogs going into the tournament, our boys have put Aquinas Diocesan Grammar School on the map in terms of schools’ soccer. We began the competition with a fantastic last gasp goal to secure a 2-1 victory over the Welsh representatives, Bishopston, filled with Swansea Academy players.

Ben Burns had put us ahead with a great strike from a free kick outside the box and we maintained our lead going into the break. Mid-way through the second half Wales pulled a goal back and it give them a huge lift. Our back four of Daniel Carlin, Ben Burns (squad captain), Tom McCarroll and Brendan Delaney kept it very tight at the back during a period of sustained pressure. Samir O’Hare and Jamie Cunningham were a rock in front of the defence and it was Jamie who popped up to score a spectacular winner with minutes to go. It is very difficult to single out individuals in such a win, as Sean McGarry in goals was fantastic, the back four solid, and our attacking players, Lorcan Swail, Niall Duffy, Matthew McDonnell & Jack Toner were all superb. Nonetheless, I have rarely seen (if ever) an individual performance in central midfield as good as that of Jamie Cunningham in this match. He was quite simply outstanding. Not far behind him in this game were Ben Burns and Lorcan Swail. In truth we were strong all over the park and our two subs, Rory Donaldson & Noah Davey Piekaar both came on and impressed enough to earn a starting position in the following match.

Next up came Boclair, the representatives and champions of Scotland. A Glasgow Rangers Academy school, they had no fewer than eight Rangers players in the team. We knew this would be a very tough task and made five changes to the starting line-up. In came Emmet O’Brien, Eunan O’Hare, Rory Donaldson, Dylan Wilson & Noah Davey Piekaar. If I had any concerns about the impact of so many changes from a winning team I needn’t have had. Dylan Wilson, who was called up only days before the tournament, slotted well into midfield, Emmet O’Brien gave a really good account of himself on the left wing along with Noah at left back & Eunan O’Hare put in a crucial battling performance on the right-hand side. This was a terrific team performance, exemplified by Rory Donaldson’s massively important man-marking job on Scotland’s main target man. Tom McCarroll was deservedly given the captain’s armband for this game and he showed true leadership and passion in defence. It was, however, our squad captain, Ben Burns, who stepped up to slot home a vital penalty that proved to be enough to secure an incredible 1-0 victory and a place in the British Isles Championship Final – something beyond our wildest dreams two days before!

Sadly, it was not to be in the Final as two Northern Ireland schools battled it to claim the title as “Best of the British Isles”. St Columbs, Derry, who beat us in last year’s Northern Ireland Schools’ Final, once again proved worthy winners. In the true spirit of this team, going in 3 nil down at half-time only brought the best out of our players. Jamie Cunningham was awarded the captaincy on this occasion, and it was he who scored a brave header, to bring us right back into the game at the start of the second half, with what was his second of the tournament. The boys gave absolutely everything and we regrettably didn’t get the run of the green.

On a final note, I am immensely proud of this group of boys. In every game they epitomised the fighting spirit any coach or manager can only dream about. Our Scottish counterparts described our team as “very physically strong & well organised” on their social media. I’ll take this as a huge compliment to our boys, but they have so much more: they have talent & probably most important of all, huge hearts. They did themselves, the school and their families proud.

In these events the squad is vital. It is not about individuals. That said, it would be wrong to not highlight the huge leadership role of our squad Captain, Ben Burns, the passionate, solid displays of Tom McCarroll in the heart of defence, the ‘Bryan Robson-like’ performances of Jamie Cunningham and the first class displays from Lorcan Swail and his ‘Beckham-like, crosses.

However, these individual performances only get to be where they are when others around them are real team players. Sean McGarry, is a terrific outfield player & he has been a huge selfless servant to our team now in goals for three years. He has been immense for us with vital saves at huge moments in games. Eunan O’Hare played a massive role in us reaching the NI Cup Final last year. No one will forget his terrific reading of the game & goal-line clearance in the semi-final when the game was on tender hooks. Dylan Wilson stepped up last minute for this competition and showed his bravery. Every player who did not start the Final or did not start against Scotland or did not start against Wales accepted the decisions, for the team, even though I know they were hurting individually. This selflessness showed maturity beyond their years and most crucially it kept team spirit really very high. This was key to our success and it did not go unnoticed.

All said and done, we came 2nd in the British Isles Championship and this is quite simply something none of us could have imagined days ago! We now target Cup success next year & hopefully another pop at actually winning the British Isles Championship with these boys in the not too distant future.

Boys, you have set the bar for other soccer teams in Aquinas to follow. Many, many congratulations.

Julian Mcgrath