Saturday, 10 December 2011

Euston Street versus Holy Cross Boys

1975 - Our football team at Euston Street Primary School won the district league and cup, an amazing achievement for a bunch of scruffy east Belfast kids from a backstreet school. I was the proud left-winger of this magnificent team who trounced most other school teams each week. We may not have been intellectual but we were genius with a football.

My biggest disappointment during our double-winning season was being pipped by one measly goal from being the team’s leading scorer. It was John McMillan and his sweet left foot which denied me that accolade. Still, I had a league and a cup winners’ medal to cherish.

Our team was drawn to play Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School in a cup competition. The match was to take place at their school. They were Catholics and we would be going into their territory. This scared us. We were Protestant kids from a Protestant area in a Protestant school with Protestant friends. Most of us had never met a Catholic before. This was the way it was – you lived in your own area with your own friends, family, school and work.

On the day of the big match, we had visions of our team winning the match and all of us being beaten up or shot. We held an emergency meeting in the school playground to discuss strategy. We decided that our only option was to let Holy Cross Boys’ win. We didn’t want to die.

Walking out onto the pitch we got a first glimpse of the enemy. They looked just like us, another bunch of eleven year old kids from Belfast in all shapes and sizes – from the short and chubby, to the tall and lanky, to the small and delicate. Twenty two bony kneed youngsters in baggy shorts and wrong-sized football shirts stood shivering in the cold Belfast winter air waiting for the referee’s whistle to blow.

When the match kicked off we were polite and offered little resistance to them and by half-time they were four nil in the lead. We were still alive. Our strategy of keeping them happy so that we could get back home to the safety of East Belfast in one piece was working.

The second half started and soon it was five nil, then six, then seven. In a momentary lapse of concentration, our centre-forward Frankie scored a goal for us. It was a fluke goal, the ball rebounding off him into the net. An 'I didn't mean to score' goal. Frankie went into hiding for the rest of the game, convinced they would 'get him'. After pleading with the coach to take him off, he was substituted.

It was seven goals to one at the final whistle and we each shook hands with the Holy Cross boys in a moment that was more profound than we realised. This was the first time any of us had shaken hands with a Catholic. Probably those boys had never shaken hands with a Protestant either.

We travelled back home in our rickety mini-bus and they went home to their area. It would a long time before any of us would shake hands with the enemy again. This was Belfast in 1975 after all.

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