The Kilrea United team of 2017, winners of the Matt Morrison and Constitution Cups
Last month marked the 137th year since football began in Kilrea. The names and faces have changed, but it shows no sign of stopping. Michael McMullan caught up with Kilrea United Chairman Davy Shiels and former player, manager and Chairman Liam Bradley to take a look back through their memories.
Football and Kilrea have always gone hand in hand. The current Covid-19 pandemic may have pressed pause on the new season, but when current Kilrea United manager Vincent McKenna is permitted to call training again, the club are in a strong position.
And they have not been without their problems off the pitch.
Back in June, an eligibility error surrounding teenager Pierce Worrall-Hill – not of the club's doing – saw them hit with a staggering £8,500 fine by FIFA.
Within 12 hours of the news breaking, the local community rallied in response to an online appeal that saw them not only raise the cash to pay back the fine, but also to invest the surplus back into the local game. This included the purchase of playing kits for the three local schools.
While football first began at the end of the last century in the town, there is still a vibrant feel in the club, one that represented both sides of the community. It is something they pride themselves on.
“That's the way it always was,” said Chairman Davy Shiels, who runs the barber shop on the town's Maghera Street.
It was previously owned by Aghadowey man John McGlinchey. Davy served his time there before taking over.
The lockdown has seen his business close the doors, yet he is keeping busy. He has been busy getting ready for a return to normal life.
“He is just a character about the place,” Liam 'Baker' Bradley points out.
Like in many towns, the barber is a hub of banter and all things local. When the murmurs of conversation are to be heard around the shop again, so too will chat of a return to football.
“It always has been and it always will be cross community,” Davy stresses, with the same enthusiasm he channels into the club.
“Nobody asked what you were, who you were, what colour you were or anything...you just wanted to kick a football. That's what it was all about and that's what it should be all about.
“It is all about the craic, the football came second and if you happen to win anything it is better still.”
In his early years, international goalkeeping legend Harry Gregg would play in goals for the town's soccer team and Bertie Peacock was another to play in the summer leagues, as players went near and far in search of action.
The humble beginnings came in October 1983, when Coleraine man Maxwell Given founded Kilrea Football and Cricket Club as it was known at the time.
Both sports were played in a field adjacent to the Manor House in the town. WJ Given was the first President, Samuel Rainey held the post of treasurer and RA Tomb was secretary.
During the first season, the club played seven games scoring eight goals, but shipping 25 and were suspended from the league for failing to pay the referee for one of the games.
After the turn of the century, Kilrea Reds, Kilrea Rovers, Kilrea Blues and Kilrea Stripes all evolved to keep the game alive.
There was also a prominent Celtic Connection in the town, which was fitting as former Northern Ireland international and Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill had a successful stint as manager at Parkhead.
O'Neill played on the Kilrea Rovers team and often gets his native town into any after dinner speeches by Kilrea Rovers' listing Sammy Crockett along with Pat Jennings and Peter Shilton as the three best goalkeepers he played behind.
“That was Sean McKenna's (uncle of manager Vinnie) Kilrea Rovers team, which lasted until the early 1980s,” recalls Shiels of the last team before the present club.
The club, as it stands today, became affiliated with the Irish FA in 1986.
“We were rejuvenated and that was the start of what is now Kilrea United,” Shiels offers. “We joined the LMA Summer League and played in the Carnival Cups.”
Davy and John McGlinchey saved up their tips from the barber shop that year and bought a new set of jersies. In their new strip, they won the Summer Festival and Summer League Cup. It was the start of the ball rolling into the current club.
With no pitch to call home, they played where they could until the opening of the current council pitch at Craiglea Gardens where they now play.
“The pitch opened in 1992. I remember us beating a strong Coleraine side 2-0. Myself and Sean McKenna picked a Kilrea select team to mark the occasion.”
Shortly after that, Kilrea United was formed. Eugene McCamphill as the first Chairman, with Liam Bradley then taking it over, with help from captain Denver Johnston (senior) and Tommy Coyle was the first treasurer before his son Shane took over in recent times.
Before that, Davy had stepped away after channelling his energy and time into Kilrea's football team for 'six or seven years'.
“You know yourself,” Davy offers. “It takes a lot of commitment and I believe if you are in something, it's all or nothing.”
As one era finished, another one began. Kilrea's Festival of the Fairy Thorn was a regular fixture in the town for 'about six years', points out Liam Bradley. The current club crest has a fairy thorn tree incorporated into it.
“There was always five-a-sides, treasure hunts and things like that down at the pitch. There were many young fellas around Kilrea, we decided we'd try and get a team in the Coleraine and District League,” he said.
Hence Kilrea United was formed. Liam and Eugene went to local business man, the late Sean Donaghy, to ask for sponsorship.
“He gave us a new top of the range TV and maybe a washing machine,” Liam recalls. “We then sold tickets for a raffle and that's how we got our first rig.”
The club entered the Coleraine Premier Division 2, but the first game was a 5-0 humbling at home to Sperrin Athletic.
“After two years we got promoted and won our first cup by beating Dervock in the final of the Constitution Cup two years later,” said Bradley who spent 12 years as manager.
The club's first major trophy arrived in the form of the 1996/97 Steele & Sons Shield, with a 3-1 win over Coleraine side Tullans in the final at Coleraine Showgrounds.
On the team were the Johnston brothers – Denver, Jason and Brian. 'Baker' scored one of the goals, but his son Paddy bagged two in a man of the match performance.
After just 45 seconds Bradley junior had the ball in the net. Denver Johnston controlled the defence, while Malachy Quinn dictated the midfield zone.
When it was the turn of Bradley senior, he chipped to the net and that season matched his likeness of Fabrizio Ravanelli by mimicking the Italian's goal celebration, pulling the jersey up over his head.
Steele & Sons Shield Winners 1996/97
“After we won the initial Constitution Cup, we were always in and around finals. We didn't win our first league until the 2000s but were always winning cups,” 'Baker' said.
Bradley remained Chairman, but as Gaelic began to take over his time, Denver stepped into the role as player manager.
The Bradley family connection is still there. Last year former player and Coleraine striker Eoin Bradley was involved in coaching the team under Vinnie McKenna. Before Covid-19 struck, Paddy was back in the club colours in the friendly games.
Every new dawn has a beginning and when Shane 'Keena' Coyle called in for a haircut during the 2012/13 season, a throwaway comment to Davy Shiels had him thinking.
Nicky McAleese had steered the club to a league title and Marty McAllister won the Steele & Sons Shield and Constitution Cup during his time as manager.
The players had three seasons of running the team among themselves. Whilst they kept all the plates spinning, the club was at a crossroads.
“D'ya fancy coming back,” Coyle asked.
If Shiels was coming back, it was going to be done right and it was going to need help.
“I was not going in to do it on my own, it's not a one-man show. We needed to start it up right,” Shiels recalls thinking at the time.
“Once you get involved, you either do or you don't,” he adds.
It was time to form a committee. Shiels is currently helped by Coyle, Benny Cunning and Daniel Cassidy. Since they got their house in order for the start of the 2013/14 season, others have chipped in. Shiels name-checks Jason Ayre, Damien McDonnell, JP McAllister, Chrissy Quigg, Paddy Margey and Gabriel Scott.
“We needed to get the finger out here, or we were going to lose this football team. Things were going downhill and we had to get a committee formed to run the club,” Shiels frankly states.
“We have been on a good run for the last six or seven years,” he continues.
“Since then, we have won a trophy every year, apart from the year (2018/19) the IFA stepped in and took the league off us. Before that, we won (titles) on and off.
“It just so happened to be over the past six or seven years, we started to win more regularly.”
Under Sean Dempsey, Kilrea were unbeaten at home during the 2015/16 season, a feat equalled by Chrissy Quigg and Stephen Coyle the following year.
Double winners 2015
“There was always a backbone of boys who stuck with it, through thick and thin,” Shiels continues, thinking of how the club has now built a solid foundation.
He points to the 2016/17 team as giving the club it's greatest moment – winning the Matt Morrison Junior Cup.
“It was an unbelievable result for a wee club like Kilrea,” Shiels enthuses.
“We won the cup double that year, but lost out on an unprecedented treble by losing the league on the last day to an injury time goal.
“That team didn't get enough credit, they were some side and played some great football”, Shiels adds.
The unbeaten home run morphed into the cup runs and the semi-final of the Matt Morrison Cup was a landmark moment in the season.
“We played Institute over in Limavady, they were under the management of Sean Friars who played with Stevie Gerrard at Liverpool,” Shiels remembers.
Aside from the Ballinamallard side they faced last season, Shiels rates Institute as the best team the club ever played against.
“We were massive underdogs. We ended up 3-1 down and came back to win 4-3. It would've been impossible to single anyone out from that game. They refused to throw in the towel and to a man, they were excellent.”
The final was a different story, with Kilrea beating neighbours Garvagh 5-1 in the final
At the start of the 2018/19 season, after another brainstorming afternoon cutting Keena's hair, the vacant manager position came up in conversation. Vinnie McKenna's name came up, he was sounded out and duly accepted.
As it turned out, that was the year they lost the league title in the boardroom following Pierce Worrall-Hill's transfer. The disappointment both stung and galvanised them.
“After the IFA took the league off us and gave it to Dervock, wee Vinnie and the boys put the head down,” Shiels said.
“We had some team and we'd have cleaned up last year. I would've been disappointed if we hadn't got silverware.”
Covid put an end to their hopes on all fronts. McKenna had added goal machine Trevor Hutchinson to the mix, along with Loughgiel trio Benny McGarry, brothers Eddie and Tony McCloskey
“He put together a helluva of a side, it was one of our best sides and I have to take my hat off to him,” Shiels added.
“We were in the semi-final of the North West Cup, which I fancied us to win – nobody wanted to play us
“We were in the semi-final of the Constitution Cup, the Quarter-Final of the Steele & Sons League and were sitting third in the league. We were unbeaten.”
When the story begins, Kilrea are ready to write the next chapter. From gathering tips and selling raffle tickets to buy their own jersies, Kilrea United have now ploughed money back into the local schools, to kit out the next generation.
The names and faces change, but there will always be football in Kilrea. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
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