Groundhop 1881 – Moyola Park AFC

Pre Season Friendly
Moyola Park AFCv Dungannon Swifts FC
Saturday, 7th July 2012, 2pm
Mill Meadow Stadium
Entrance £5, No Programme
Distance 440 miles, Attendance 30(ish)
Above Castledawson’s pleasant main street, grey skies lifted as fresh bunting fluttered in the gentle breeze. Passersby had already offered cordial greetings but it was Billy Lennox I stopped, as he ambled towards me carrying a box of firelighters. Of course it could have been fate, however, when you engage total strangers in conversation about the location of a football club, you hardly expect to hear enlightening tales of their many years as both player and manager.
Some time later – thanking Billy for his kind directions – I returned to the hire car and headed towards Bridge Street, and Mill Meadow. Since leaving home seven hours earlier I’d witnessed sleepy towns sat amongst lush green landscape, and gawped at remarkable viaducts, and enormous loughs where Common Terns swooped over tales of St Patrick and of Viking ships. The final leg of my journey was just a short one… across the largest single-span stone bridge in Ireland.
As the wheels hit the tarmac on the other side, I instinctively leapt for the brakes as my stomach returned south. Ahead was a gate to the Moyola Park Estate; to its left a chapel and the old pitch; down to my right children were being coached on the new ground’s 3G playing surface.
In 1880, Moyola Park Football Club – under Lord Spencer Chichester’s patronage – played Cliftonville on his grounds in their first ever fixture. Months later Lord Chichester became the first president of the (all) Irish Football Association, and on 9th April 1881, with gate receipts totalling £8, Moyola Park beat Cliftonville 1-0 to lift the inaugural Irish Cup. Fittingly, 128 years later, playing their final game on the old pitch Cliftonville were again the opponents.
In the intervening years Moyola Park became a Junior side, before returning to the big leagues in the third division. Today’s friendly against top division Dungannon Swifts was their first of the new season. Prior to kick-off, welcoming staff took time to show me around – past images of former heroes – before introducing me to player-manager Mervyn Pattison, and “star player” Curtis Hassan. An hour later – as the team were going through their paces – both Pattison and his assistant Darren Mawhinney took time during the drills to chat about football and their hopes for their young team. In return I inform the jovial boss I was expecting nothing less than a 5-0 giant-killing (I won’t recount his response).
The 3G pitch seemed to have little bearing on the furious start to the game. Nor did it have little impact on the bounce of the ball or the commitment to tackle. Though not in full swing, both teams seemed determined to win. Dungannon were clearly stronger, intent on “creating” their chances. The home team on the other hand hustled and harried, forcing mistakes and attacked on the break. When chances arose Dungannon’s were met by keeper Gareth Maguire in good form, or stout defending marshalled by the resolute Conal Kilpatrick. In the midfield Hassan was ably assisted by Chris Magill. Almost every Moyola move went through the pair, and when it counted Magill’s precision pass sent Darren Henderson clear of the defence. Three players converged on the ball but Henderson got the first touch, taking it around the Swifts’ stopper, and smashed it into the open net. Much like Watford at Anfield in 1999, the next 70 minutes were backs to the wall but the home team managed to hang out for a deserved victory.

Chairman Steve Ewing, probably overstating my influence, thanked me afterwards for bringing the team “a little bit of luck”, but then as music rang out in the bar it was clear it had been a good day for all at this friendly club from Moyola Park.
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Initially appearing in this season’s Watford FC matchday programmes, consequently Groundhop 1881 reports will appear late on here. At the end of the journey, a book will be published telling the full story.
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