Ulster Hockey Champions – The Academy boys grab the McCullough Cup title for a ninth time

The Academy Senior 1st XI added another bit of excellence to their tradition of winning titles with a hard fought and patient victory in this year’s McCullough Cup Final.  The winning score line of 3-1 against Wallace High School, reflected the overall play, but it took patience and talent to see the coveted title come home in front of a massive crowd at Lisnagarvey Hockey Club.

The competition took a break last year due to the Covid restrictions and this season games have been savoured by the staff, coaches and players with each challenge getting meticulous preparation.  The Academy are no strangers to Wallace HS, having defeated them in 3 finals in the last 11 years.  Indeed, this was Coach Mr Simon Jess’s second accolade of winning the title, as he had previously coached the boys in an earlier McCullough Cup victory against Wallace.  This final, however, saw the Academy go in as firm favourites, having already beaten their opponents in September during the Group section 3-0 at Havelock and having disposed of Cookstown 3-0 in a comfortable semi-final victory; indeed many had the Academy name already etched on the trophy.

Sport, as always, throws a spanner in many well-laid plans and this showcase would be no different with Wallace dragging home in style in the eighth minute to open the scoreline.  This was after some excellent platform play, with Matthew McKee first testing the Lisburn keeper who was well positioned before eventually the speed and quality of passing led to the opportunities arriving.  The pressure from Banbridge continued but Wallace defended well against no less than four Academy set pieces to edge out Quarter 1 as 1-0 leaders.

Banbridge Academy vs Wallace High School McCullough Cup Final Highlight

With increased verve the Academy began to sharpen their patterns and a net ball from Tommy Dobson fed Charlie Rowe who deftly left two in his wake before picking out his twin Louis, who showed intelligence and class with a single nudge to level it 1-1, lighting up the Banbridge travelling support.  Further set pieces arrived but a mixture of missed traps and breakdown runs, mixed with a sprinkling of green cards to both sides, saw the remainder of the quarter fizzle away to leave it finely balanced at 1-1.

The half-time discussion revolved around discipline and patience from Coach Jess and he was clearly animated with several unpunished challenges as things began to heat up in the third quarter.  The buoyant Wallace side had the Academy briefly down to nine men but defensive blocks from Best, Stevenson, Watt and Baxter kept the shots to a minimum with Part having a single kick to make. The Lisburn school high line press was beginning to reap reward as the Academy offered up some possession but the threat was always potent from Evans, Large, McKee and Pollock and three wonderful saves from Wallace left the game down to the final quarter.

The lack of an outlet and height of attack was blatantly obvious from both sides – and it would be a matter of who dares wins and so it would prove.  The Academy took the game by the scruff and it turned quickly in favour of Banbridge Academy as Louis and Charlie Rowe linked at pace before slipping the ball to Ben Pollock who spun out and fed Cody Large.  Cody slid in on his backhand side for the Academy with a perfectly timed reverse sweep – the Old Boys loving his celebration. This new attacking energy now arrived in spades with Ben Pollock, Josh Brownlee, Matthew Spence and James Evans all causing Wallace an equation they couldn’t solve. Then the match ball scenario arrived and again Pollock caused the pain as his mazy run set up a ping pong with Matthew McKee who fired his assist across the face of the Wallace goal for Louis Rowe to deflect home for what would be the final Academy goal – winning the title for a ninth time.

The Academy Hockey tradition continues to flourish and Coach Jess was clearly delighted for his Squad of talented players. He said, “I am very happy for the team, they have put a huge amount into their training since April and this trophy is a great reward for that. We are fortunate to have a large pool of talented players beyond today’s 17-man squad, who are all willing to go the extra mile to push the team to be better”

He added, “Wallace made us work extremely hard for the win and deserve real credit in their defensive resilience – we will learn a great deal from the test today.  The squad would wish to thank the extended coaching staff of Mr John Clarke, Team Manager Mr Colin Walker as well as Mr McLoughlin our Headmaster and Mr Mark Cordner, Master in Charge Boys’ Hockey for making every resource available to us throughout the season and in the run-up to this final.”

When asked about the School’s pride in gaining the title, Headmaster Mr Robin McLoughlin paid tribute to the wonderful array of past pupils and parents and centred very much on the celebration of success for the players involved. He added, “Congratulations to the boys and the Captains Louis and Charlie Rowe on winning the McCullough Cup and becoming Ulster Champions.  I convey the congratulations from the Board of Governors and colleagues to the boys and coaches Mr Jess, Mr Walker and Mr Clarke.  I also commend Wallace High and their pupils for producing a final of the highest quality and a wonderful spectacle for school sport”.

Master in Charge Mr Mark Cordner didn’t hold back with his obvious delight, “ I am seriously proud of every player and parent today.  This type of day should never be taken for granted as the last few years have shown. We are so thankful for the players’ dedication to the sport of hockey at the Academy and just delighted that so many of these young men have something historic to reflect on when their schooldays are a distant memory.”

The squad wish to thank all the parents, past pupils and wider Banbridge community who made the trip to support the team.  They also wish to sincerely thank Academy Hockey partners EMTEK, Sinton’s at the Bridge, Scarva and Mid Ulster Granite for their continued financial backing.

Banbridge Academy Squad – Connor Part, James Finlay, Luke Watt, Aaron Baxter, Seb Best, Ben Walker, Louis Rowe (Captain), Ben Pollock, Josh Brownlee, Matthew McKee, Tommy Dobson, Charlie Rowe (Captain), James Evans, Cody Large, Matthew Spence, Matthew Stevenson, Ben Farson.