It was the 19th April 1954, Easter Monday, when the boys of Holy Cross scaled the heights of local schools’ football competition to win the Northern Ireland Schools’ FA Senior Cup.
On that occasion, the Ardoyne boys defeated Belfast Technical 2-1 at Solitude to win the school’s first and only Schools’ Cup title at that level, a remarkable feat given that the school had only begun competing in school age soccer competition six years previously (the 1948/49 team included Freddie Gilroy, who would go on to become an Olympic medallist and champion boxer).
The impressive size of the crowd in attendance for the event could be gauged by the fact that the Holy Cross manager (and teacher), Gerry Maguire, recorded the gate receipts as being £207-11-6 in his football diary.
The passing of the 1947 Education Act the previous decade would mean that the 1950s would see the opening of secondary schools as part of a reconfiguration of the school estate changing the status of many existing schools to primary schools, including Holy Cross Boys’, putting an end to their participation in schoolboy football competitions beyond the ‘Junior’ age level (Under 11).
That Holy Cross team is still fondly remembered in the parish, including as it did the legendary Joe Elwood, who would mark out a career across the water with Leyton Orient, alongside the boys of ’76 and ’97, who would win the primary school version of the Northern Ireland Cup introduced in 1966.
St Patrick’s weekend has become a significant date in the annual school sporting calendar.
Gaelic football’s Macrory Cup has been contested since 1923, and today’s final saw St Ronan’s (Lurgan) defeat St Mary’s (Magherafelt).
Meanwhile, over in Ravenhill, Campbell College defeated The Royal School (Armagh) to win the Ulster Schools’ Cup, a contest distinguished by the fact it is the second oldest rugby competition in the world, dating back to 1876.
There was a time when only the Ulster Schools’ Cup final featured as an annual event covered by the broadcast media, but as Northern Ireland has slowly been evolving into a society more reflective of both traditions, the blue riband event of Ulster Schools’ Gaelic football has joined the rugby final in receiving televised treatment.
Meanwhile, at the home of Crusaders FC today (Seaview), the NI Schools’ Football Association (U18) final was being played out between St Columb’s College (Derry) and St Patrick’s Grammar (Downpatrick), following the completion of the Belfast U16 Schools’ Cup Final between La Salle and Edmund Rice College.
The NI Schools’ FA Cup won by Holy Cross in 1954 was first contested and won by Belfast Technical in 1925. Uniquely amongst the schoolboy sporting contests, football competitions have been contested and won regularly by schools spanning the grammar/ non-grammar divide as well as the religious divide (though Holy Cross’ 1954 triumph was the first and only by a Catholic school for the first 44 years of the competition).
Yet in spite of the rich history of schoolboy soccer contests, and the fact that it attracts a greater number of entrants and therefore level of competition, it remains the case that football is very much the poor relation when it comes to how it is viewed in the broadcast media.
The last time the Ulster Schools’ Cup was won by a non-grammar school was in 1971, when the Boys’ Model triumphed over Ballymena Academy. Whilst the Macrory Cup has a greater level of participation by non-urban schools from the non-grammar sector, it does not come close to matching schoolboy soccer in terms of attracting competitive involvement of schools from every sector on an annual basis.
Could it be that the relative perception of football as the preserve of the working-classes continues to hinder its promotion?
In any event, I think it is time that the BBC treated schoolboy football as an equal when it comes to Finals’ Day.
Then we can start a conversation about why we are so poor in this society at promoting and showcasing women’s sport at school level.