FEATURE: East Belfast FC- A big family combining sporting success with building a strong community
East Belfast FC secured a historic third Steel and Sons Cup with a convincing 3-0 win over local rivals Sirocco Works in the prestigious Christmas Day final.
The club had previously secured the trophy in the 1954-55 season with a 5-0 over Dundela at Grosvenor Park and again in 1992 under the management of Jim Wilson when the side defeated Linfield Swifts 1-0 at Seaview. Jim Wilson and a range of former players were in attendance at this year’s final, bringing back fond memories of their triumph.
Unionist Voice visited the club in the wake of their Christmas Day success and sat down with manager Stephen Matthews and a range of other individuals within the club.
I began by asking East Belfast’s manager how it felt for him personally to bring the trophy back to East Belfast for the first time in over 20 years “I am obviously immensely proud of what we as a club, and I include everyone in this from the youth system to the first team, have achieved in recent years which obviously reached a high point on Christmas Day.”
He continued “So my pride in our achievement is a collective pride, it isn’t about me or indeed any individual. I said after the semi-final that East Belfast Football Club is one big family and we are delighted to be spending Christmas Day together. I am glad it was a successful Christmas Day and I would reserve all tributes for the people that worked so hard to put the club in this position.”
Discussing the competition, Matthews said that his side were underdogs throughout and only when it came to the final did they assume the mantle of slight favourites. He told Unionist Voice “the players showed tremendous character and fight in every round of the competition. They were underdogs against Bangor, against St James and also had to fight back from difficult positions in earlier ties. If I would sum it up I would say we really wanted to win this, we are lucky enough to have the ability but you can have all the ability in the world and yet come up short if you don’t want it more. We stuck together and we, as a collective group, community and club, got our rewards.”
The club has been much maligned in recent years, sometimes receiving unfair media coverage, Matthews was keen to highlight the open and transparent nature of the club. He said “our club is open, transparent and friendly. We have been subjected to unfair coverage in the media at times and that’s unfortunate. We challenge that in different ways and are passionate about ensuring fairness and balance, but in terms of me personally I am a football manager. I am at the club to win trophies and to help build a positive club that can provide opportunities for the next generation of young people from East Belfast. That is it, there are other people within the club that can speak on wider issues but my focus is on what I can do for this community and this football club.
He concluded “I am in my 50s, the benefits of the work we are putting in to building the youth infrastructure and community development side of this club isn’t to benefit my generation, it is for the young people from our community who often have nothing to do. I want to encourage young people to aspire to be the best they can be, and we as a club want to create opportunities for young people. It isn’t just about football, we encourage young people to seek better educational opportunities and to look after themselves in terms for their physical and mental health.”
It is clear that the first team manager is keen to emphasis the overarching community and family ethos of the club and indeed plays an important role in ensuring that clubs development strategy is implemented across all sections of the club.
The youth section is now run by football development officer David Brotherson. A UEFA B Licence coach David is a full time football coach and is passionate about building a unique youth set up for the young people of East Belfast.
Showing Unionist Voice around the ongoing academy training sessions he explained that the club are trying to build a youth set up that will endure for years to come.
“You can see how many kids we have here, it is about creating an infrastructure that won’t simply last for one or two years, but which will endure for years to come. We want to provide an avenue for young people to go from as young as 3 years old to the senior side, and to stay with the club throughout their whole footballing career.
He continued “We are also aware of the challenges and distractions young people face in today’s society, which is why we place a strong emphasis on building positive mindsets and good values into the young people. We are keen to encourage all those involved in the club, from the youngest child to the oldest man, to engage in any and all educational opportunities they can. We don’t want to just make better footballers, we want to build the capacity of each individual and collectively feed that into building a strong vibrant local community.”
Outlining the set-up of the academy Brotherson said “we have 8 youth sections ranging from children born in 2013 to children born in 2005. Within those sections there are 13 teams of children with different abilities and skill levels. We also run a mini soccer on a Friday night catering for children from 3-6 years of age, this is provided free of charge and is open to all boys and girls.”
He revealed the main aim of the academy this year is to set up a dedicated junior girls side “We want to get a junior girls team started to create a pathway for young girls from junior football to our very successful senior girls side.”
The senior team is now managed by John Spence, son of the legendary Glentoran scout who recently passed away, Billy Spence.
John Spence stepped into the first team management position at a time of difficulty for the club, and with able assistance from David McConnell they kept the club alive when failure to fulfil just one more fixture could have seen them slip out of existence.
It is remarkable to think of how the club has developed in such a short period of time, and East Belfast supporters present at the ground are full of praise for Spence and McConnell for keeping the club alive. One says “it is amazing where we are now, but don’t forget John Spence and Davy (McConnell) stepped in when the club was in danger of going out of existence. They provided a springboard to build what we have now.”
And now it is clear the club is riding high on the crest of a wave. We finished by speaking to Steel and Sons Cup man of the match Stephen Cockcroft. A bundle of energy, Cockcroft is still buzzing from the club’s Christmas Day success.
Video Credit: Tommy Philips
“We worked really hard for 2-3 weeks to develop a game plan and training was very intense. This intense period really bound us even closer together and gave us a sense of momentum.”
The Bangor man praised the community and whole club for the support the first team received “I remember Mac (Stephen Matthews) saying we are all one big family and we were spending Christmas Day together. That is more than just a good line you know, that really is true. That is the kind of togetherness we have.”
Looking to the future Cockcroft has his eyes on many more successful years at East Belfast FC, he finishes by saying “this isn’t the pinnacle; this is just the start for us. We want to fulfil this club’s and this community’s full potential. Who knows what we could achieve? We as players will be continuing to work harder than ever to ensure that we bring more success to this football club and the people of East Belfast.”
The upcoming issue of Unionist Voice will contain a special pull out celebrating East Belfast’s Steel and Sons Cup triumph. The special edition of the magazine will be priced £4 with all profits going directly into the East Belfast FC youth set up.