Clounagh Junior High School pupils will tackle Belfast Boys’ Model in Ballymena next week with Northern Ireland Cup glory the end goal.
Success in past rounds to see off Laurelhill, St Malachy’s Belfast, Rathmore Grammar and Fivemiletown High has set up the national showdown at Ballymena Showgrounds on Wednesday, April 27.
The under 14s, however, can hit the road in relaxed mood according to coach Gareth Eakin.
“The hard work has been done to get this far and the final will take care of itself,” said Eakin. “To get to this stage marks a great achievement and now we want to enjoy it.
“We will go in as underdogs compared to Model so the pressure remains off us overall and I just want the boys to relax.
“They have put in so much commitment to get this far and displayed a lot of grit to get results in previous rounds.
“Raymond Hill was coach about four years back when Clounagh last won a Northern Ireland Cup and also took a team to runners-up spot after that victory.
“It is great for the school and I am sure we will have plenty of support.
“Credit goes to the boys and how they have managed to adapt to suit the team, with everyone working together so well.
“Most, if not all, have experience in club football and Clounagh’s progress is an example of the strength of grassroots sport in the area.”
Pupils from Bocombra, Edenderry, Millington, Orchard County and Tandragee primary schools were on show in Ballymena during the Small-Sided Games’ District Tournament.
Staged under the banner of the Northern Ireland Schools’ Football Association, the seven-a-side finals featured senior and development squads from Mid-Ulster, East Antrim and Londonderry.
Mid-Ulster’s senior group finished as overall winners.
Stephen Blevins and Peter Mullan offered coaching advice to the squads selected thanks to a series of Mid-Ulster Schools’ Football Association primary festivals.
MID-ULSTER (DEVELOPMENT): Tom Clarke, Callum McShane (Edenderry), Charlie Porter (Edenderry), Antoni Wroblewski, Daniel Dillon, Jesse Turner, Bobby Harvey, John Scott (Bocombra).
MID-ULSTER (SENIOR): Jack Calvert (Bocombra), Joe Williamson (Orchard County), Darren Robinson (Orchard County), Jonny McCullough (Millington), Josh Roney (Tandragee), Jacob McIlwaine (Tandragee), Tommy Smyth (Edenderry), Joseph Stevenson (Edenderry).
“Both squads performed outstandingly well,” said Blevins. “I’ve been involved with MUSFA primary district squads for 20 years and I’ve never seen so many MUSFA primary-aged players so technically advanced or confident when on the ball.
“Our squad, indeed the whole tournament, was a superb endorsement of the benefits of the small-sided games’ strategy, a philosophy that MUSFA primary schools have embraced since day one.
“After the challenge of winning over the doubters and re-structuring, we are now reaping the rewards.
“Many of these guys play together at Portadown Youth and their knowledge of each other’s game undoubtedly benefitted the district.
“It would be lovely to see this schools’ link with Portadown Youth and other local boys’ clubs further established and built upon in a common goal.”
The under 12s’ Mid-Ulster Schools’ Select also enjoyed title success in Ballymena featuring pupils from Killicomaine, Tandragee and Lismore Comprehensive.
Killicomaine’s Matt Creighton was named the ‘Player of the Tournament’.
MID-ULSTER: Rhys Herron, Jack Johnston, James Campbell (Killicomaine), Adam Erwin (Killicomaine), Jamie McKeown, John Patience, Ross Hawthorn, Shea Atkinson (Lismore), Oran O’Kane (Lismore), Ben Harvey (Killicomaine), Matt Creighton (Killicomaine), Daniel Pepper, Odhran Skelton (Lismore), Adam Neil (Tandragee), Curtis Murphy (Killicomaine), Jamie Rusk, Jack Harvey, Nathan Bell.