BANBRIDGE Academy’s senior first XI wrote themselves into the record books by becoming the first school in Ulster to win the Burney Schools Cup outright for the fourth consecutive time.
The game lived up to everyone’s expectations with passion and skill in abundance and played in front of one of the largest cup final crowds for many years at Comber Road, Hillsborough.
Some 350 pupils enjoyed a sport packed day of supporting the Academy, by being transported to Solitude as the Academy football team lost out 3-0 to Belfast Met College in the Schools Cup semi final. But in fine voice the crowd transcended upon Hillsborough and against all odds helped cheer a memorable milestone for boys’ hockey in Ulster.
The game started at a brisk pace and the Academy had to depend upon cool heads and sound technique as Sullivan Upper pounced on the offensive in an action packed opening ten minutes. The Hollywood school forced the issue on eight minutes as they won a set play and as the crowd quietened down it took Academy keeper Peter Bingham to be alert as he saved well before Hurst eventually cleared the danger. The relentless pace and attack from Sullivan continued but Thomas Sturgeon, Clarke Neville, Ben Knox and in form Andrew Ferguson enjoyed some quality possession and looked comfortable absorbing whatever Sullivan could serve at them.
Some quick one touch passages of play sent the Academy on several fine counter attacks and Rory Woods reverse stick almost put the Academy into the lead but for a sharp save from the Sullivan keeper. Once again the Academy managed to intercept possession from Sullivan and the best chance of the opening quarter saw McCracken link with Warnock who pulled the ball back for Jonny McKee to see his sweep creep agonisingly over the bar.
The intensity from the Academy began to build momentum and Woods, McKee and Warnock began to enjoy more surging runs on the left and some fine play won them their first set piece midway through the half. The resulting corner saw a deft switch to Woods but his flick didn’t fully grab and the keeper recovered position well to deal with it.
The midfield of McKee, Reid and Hurst showed tremendous maturity and thwarted Robson time and time again, but Sullivan persisted at their task and it took some fine defending from Ferguson in particular to silence the Sullivan support as their talisman McCourt found the going tough at left wing. The press line from Sullivan made offensive play difficult but as the half moved into the second period the fresh legs of Ben Cosgrove injected an edge and his partnership with McKee allowed a fine switch which released him up the right hand side. The opposite number Connor Roberts could only watch as the ball was lashed in for Rory Woods to add yet more pace on it to score past the Sullivan goalkeeper on 31 minutes.
The restart saw a more controlled response than in previous years and Knox and Reid gave as good as they got and some smart passing and sharp carrying of the ball allowed Warnock to be set free. The Sullivan side again found Ferguson and Hurst linking well but McCourt ended the half with an excellent reverse pass across the face of goal and again Bingham had to save smartly to deny the equaliser.
The team talk at half time revolved around patience and awareness of roles as individuals and the collective reward would be forthcoming – but would it prove to be the case.
The second period was to start at a different tempo and it certainly delivered that. The levels of skill and speed on display matched a final worthy of a Schools’ Cup title and two sets first by Clarke Neville, then Woods, saw the Sullivan keeper save well.
The pressure from McCracken, Warnock, Cosgrove and McKee began to drain the opposition and limit them to bursts of genius from the Robson brothers. But a slick three man move saw the rebound from the Sullivan defender go high in the air before Rory Woods took it at full pace before showing some fantastic juggling skills and then unleashing one of the goals of the season on that famous reverse stick side to put the score line at 2-0 to the Academy.
Once again some grit from McKee, Reid and Neville allowed Cosgrove to break free and he neatly passed to Reid who shot from the wide angle only to be denied by the keeper. Further efforts from John McCague and Camin McCluskey went wide and over but persistence finally paid as that man again Woods pounced on a rebound to swivel and dispatch the third goal.
There was almost too much time available, and the players had been well briefed that a comeback should be avoided by stepping efforts up at the crucial time. The Sullivan side threw caution to the wind in an attempt to flood the Academy half and some fantastic defending from captain Sturgeon helped calm the situation, leading by example and indeed creating solo attacks from Warnock and McCague.
The game then saw three green cards and two minute suspensions as Reid and Neville for the Academy halted two attacks with abrupt challenges. Nonetheless the hearts were being worn on the sleeves of Sullivan and again a reverse cross from the line saw the cruellest of deflections to pull it back to 3-1 with 11 minutes remaining.
Fresh legs arrived in the form of Tim Watt and Sam Farson, and with all of the squad used it would be a proper team effort that would see off further sets and attacks as Knox and Sturgeon dealt admirably with pacy attacks. The game ended with McKee surging on yet another attack before the final whistle and scenes of celebration from the Banbridge faithful.
The man of the match award was presented by the Ulster Branch president to the hat trick hero Rory Woods, and the acceptance speech from captain Sturgeon praised the coaching team of Mr Dawson, Mr Cordner, John Clarke, Michael Anderson and Aaron Appleton.
He went on to thank the boys in Upper Sixth for their huge dedication to Academy sport over the past seven years, and thanked Sullivan Upper for being such tough opponents in both finals.
The game was followed by a warm reception in Garvey’s clubhouse and parents, players and officials got a chance to mingle and reflect on what was a milestone for Academy hockey.
SQUAD: P. Bingham, J. Glass, A. Ferguson, B. Knox, T. Sturgeon (captain), C. Neville, J McKee, A. Reid, D. McCracken, R. Woods, M. Warnock, S. Farson, J. McCague, C McCluskey, D. Armstrong, B. Cosgrove, M. Hurst, T. Watt.