Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: Here's to the young guns and the elder statesmen of the Irish League

Life of Riley: Jay Riley made his debut for Coleraine at just 14 years of age last week
Life of Riley: Jay Riley made his debut for Coleraine at just 14 years of age last week
Jim Ervin

By Billy Weir

To slightly change an iconic lyric, it's debut time, and there's no need to be afraid, even if you might have to throw your arms around them.

He's finally lost it, I hear you cry, but this iconic line from Band Aid is rather apt this week as it was No.1 when the newest kid on the block made his first fleet-footed steps into local football.

Now, sadly, for those of us of a more mature vintage, the tragic news is that this was Band Aid 20, that line was not crooned by Paul Young, but by Chris Martin, but we are all to be excused for feeling a tad old.

At the ripe old age of 14 years, eight months and 18 days old, Jay Riley turned out for Coleraine in their North West Cup clash with Moyola Park.

Of course, there are those who argue that throwing a kid into the man's game is akin to lobbing a Christian into the Colosseum wearing Lynx Africa, but Oran Kearney, who must feel very old as he went to school with Jay's dad, had no such qualms.

"Jay isn't the biggest, but he is physically fit and in good shape. He is strong," he said. "I believe playing against 'men' really brings these youngsters on in their development."

That is a debate for another day, but it just shows another wonderful side to our local game.

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Also on the pitch that night was Steven Douglas, a sprightly 41-year-old who has served Linfield and the Bannsiders with distinction before Jay was even thought of.

For the record, his record on the day he emerged, kicking and screaming I would imagine, into the world was Elvis Presley's 'Way Down', a posthumous No.1 for the King, who had popped his blue suede clogs not long before the arrival of Scotty.

He is not alone at that end of the charts, another 41-year-old, albeit seven months Douglas' junior, was on the bench for Glenavon at Seaview on Saturday.

Kyle Neill, who emerged to the maniacal meanderings of Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights, was born in March 1978, and was probably to be found charging up and down the left-hand side of the delivery room from day one.

It would be remiss of me not to mention another whose life has begun again, with Stuart Addis (Are 'Friends' Electric, Tubeway Army) a fresh-faced 40-year-old and on the bench for Dungannon Swifts on Saturday.

Meanwhile, at the Brandywell, there was slightly more goalkeeping drama as Larne treated Institute very badly in the first half only for things to turn a little with the dismissal of Conor Mitchell.

With the other regular keeper Conor Devlin ruled out with injury, Tiernan Lynch had no option but to turn to McKenzie Pauley, who, compared to Jay, is a veritable veteran of the game at 16 years and 128 days.

Now, this is the danger with trawling through the hit parade of yesteryear, you're always going to be met with problems. I have to say that for Steven and Kyle I knew every No.1 from both years, indeed I could probably take a stab at singing a few of them, only at the risk of being stabbed by music lovers.

No.1 when McKenzie made his big debut was a song called Loneliness by Tomcraft. It was No.1 for one week and was never heard of again.

Judging by the reviews of McKenzie's first stint at the loneliness that is being a goalie in the Premiership, he is unlikely to be a one-hit wonder.

"Sixteen years of age, his first senior game, not an easy thing to do to step into an Irish League game as a goalkeeper in the second half," said proud manager Tiernan Lynch.

"I thought the lad was outstanding, he showed great character, he showed he's a young man."

Team-mate Shane McEleney was also fulsome in his praise for the former Co Down SuperCupNI (that's the Milk Cup to us old folk) player.

"All credit to him, everything he did he did really well and it's onwards and upwards for him. Fair play to him, he took it in his stride," said Shane.

As for the young man himself, his reaction gives us all hope that the youth of today aren't all as bad as we think.

"I'm very grateful for the management to have trust in me to allow me to come on," he said, and who amongst us isn't going 'Aww, bless' at this moment in time.

Of course, age is merely a number, Crusaders have probably the oldest squad in local football, there are no fewer than 10 over-30s in their squad, which makes them the Dad's Army of the league.

Maybe that's why they don't panic, their three goalscorers on Saturday against Glenavon, Phillip Lowry, Paul Heatley and David Cushley, all past 30 and Sean O'Neill, who looks 61 rather than the 31 he actually is, was the hero with a last-gasp penalty save.

And there was a moment to savour up at Ballymena when an unnamed Coleraine player (Jamie Glackin, 24) had a good five-yard start in a race for the ball with Jim Ervin (34) and he was left trailing in his wake.

This will be of no surprise to fans at Linfield and at Warden Street, where Ervin's will to win and joy for the game are refreshing.

"Bryan (McLoughlin) and I were blessed and privileged to work with him for the guts of 10 years at Windsor Park and our skipper continues to defy everything," said manager David Jeffrey.

"He does fantastically well, he has a boyish enthusiasm yet he has the experience of a veteran, and in terms of a leader on the pitch he does phenomenally well."

He does indeed, as do Steven, Kyle and all the other old fogeys still playing with distinction. The likes of Jay and McKenzie have the perfect men with whom to continue their football education and hopefully carve out a career in the game.

Here's to them, as Busted/Marilyn may have said.

Refs have a really tough job, but they don't help themselves

I  have tried, I promise, to stay away from the thorny issue of refereeing imponderables thus far this season, but there comes a time...

Our managers were at a loss on Saturday as they quite rightly opined that the path of their respective games were changed by the men in black/red/magic marker yellow.

At Seaview, Jamie Robinson awarded three penalties, although he was, by all accounts, the only person in the ground to see two of them.

"I thought all the penalties were soft. Jamie is a young referee learning his trade and that's what we got today," said 'winning' manager Stephen Baxter.

Opposite number Gary Hamilton was equally mystified.

"We work so hard but we can't control what the man in the middle of the pitch does and the decisions he makes. Anyone watching that match today will know that he made massive mistakes - the penalty that won them the game was not a penalty."

Meanwhile, up in Ballymena, Coleraine finished with nine men, with the dismissal of captain Stephen O'Donnell leaving Oran Kearney scratching his head. The tone for the day was set by referee Tim Marshall with a very early booking for Declan Carville, which had the feel of a referee laying down a marker.

Fine, but it really leaves you nowhere to go and, as a result, at the end of a match where there were maybe two or three bad challenges, we had yellow cards galore and two dismissals.

"I watched the Old Firm game a few weeks ago and it's nearly the way now in the Old Firm that the referee goes out with a point of not giving a yellow card in the first 30 or 40 minutes because if they do they set the standard," said Kearney afterwards.

"You can argue for consistency that a yellow card is a yellow card no matter what time it comes at, but I think you have to take the profile of the game into consideration."

And this is in no way an attack on either official. They thought what they were doing was right, but I just wish we could come away from a match not talking about them.

It’s Millar in the nick of time as Blues win again 

Nearly, but not quite. Glentoran, on the evidence of Saturday’s first Big Two clash of the season, are getting closer to Linfield but their rivals still have that awfully annoying habit of winning when they have to.

For the second week in a row, they held firm at the back and nicked a late winner to cap a great week for Kirk Millar, who also signed a new deal with the club.

“I’m chuffed to sign here for another three years and weeks don’t get much better to then top it off with a goal against the Glens,” he said.

“It’s my first time scoring a winner in a Big Two derby and no better team to score against.

“It’s good for the league that there’s more competition but we sit a couple of games behind so must just look after ourselves to claw up the table.”

For some reason he seems to be the man the boo-boys at Windsor target the most. That should keep them quiet for a day or two.

Institute job will be a steep learning curve for Sean 

I see that new Institute boss Sean Connor has just been awarded a Masters in Sports Psychology — if he can keep them up he’ll get the Nobel Prize.

With just a point to show from their seven outings to date, he has a huge task on his hands, starting, and wouldn’t you just know it, against a club legend in Paddy McLaughlin.

A trip to McLaughlin’s high-scoring Cliftonville probably wouldn’t be the ideal starting point for any new manager, but Connor, who has a wealth of experience in the League of Ireland, seems to be up for the challenge.

“I closed out my Masters degree last week, and I like the challenge,” he said.

Indeed, university challenge is one thing, but we don’t need a mastermind to tell us the situation that Institute are in.

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