Willowbank heroes Eamonn Hughes and Ciaran Kelly dedicated the greatest night in the club’s history to two key men who weren’t at Shamrock Park to join in the celebrations as their side lifted the Fonacab Junior Cup.
Those are former club captain James Moore, who passed away suddenly in 2017, and club chairman George McCabe, who is currently ill.
Moore was a much-loved figurehead at the club, leading the senior side on the pitch and also coaching the junior teams.
The club’s Football Development Centre bears his name and his legacy remains central to the Willowbank FC identity.
Just 12 years after the club’s senior side was launched, they’ve hit what current captain Hughes calls the ‘pinnacle of junior football’ with their first Junior Cup success.
The 4-2 penalty victory over three-in-a-row champions Enniskillen Rangers sparked scenes that Moore and McCabe should have been in the thick of.
Regardless of their absence, they were central to the thoughts of the celebrating squad.
“This victory is for them,” said proud captain Hughes, who scored the opening goal in the 1-1 draw and also converted his spot-kick during the shootout.
“They are the two people my heart was thinking about for the last few days.
“James was my best friend and he passed away on July 14, 2017. It’s something I will never forget. He was the reason I joined Willowbank. He was always at me to come and join the club and kept telling me that if I joined, the club could win the league.
“I’ve played for Cliftonville and Donegal Celtic but to come to Willowbank and win this, it’s one of the best feelings I’ve had in football. We beat our local rivals St James’ a few years ago and everybody said it wouldn’t be topped but it has been tonight.
“We’re at the pinnacle now. This is unbelievable. With no disrespect to the Junior Shield or the league titles we’ve won in the Amateur League, this is the pinnacle of junior football and we’ve done the business.”
They certainly did. It was a victory that was thoroughly well deserved as the west Belfast side had dominated large swathes of normal time, making it pay through Hughes’ penalty on the cusp of half-time but eventually pegged back against the run of play by Rangers star striker Jason Keenan.
The club knows what it takes to get the job done, having won the County Antrim Junior Shield in 2018 and 2019, as well as the Amateur League divisions 2C and 2B in the same glory-filled back-to-back seasons.
And they did it again on Tuesday night.
“What it means to me is that this is the be all and end all of junior football,” Hughes smiled. “Willowbank can now say we’re the best club in junior football. Everybody was saying before tonight that this was the two best teams playing each other and we came out on top.
“Enniskillen have won it three years in a row so we had the underdog tag but now, with this win, we’ve come out of that. Now we’re there to be shot at and teams will be looking to beat us.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet and it probably won’t for another few days. It just feels absolutely unbelievable. What a feeling.”
At the start of the second period of extra-time, Hughes issues the rallying cry: "Someone go and be the hero." Goalkeeper Ciaran Kelly took his chance, netting his own spot-kick before pulling his gloves back on and saving the decisive kick.
“This is for Jamesie,” Kelly said afterwards. “That’s who started this whole thing.
“It’s also for our chairman Geordie and for everybody back home; all the people who support us, our families and everyone else.
“We got beat in the semi-final last year and by Enniskillen the year before. We felt we were close in both of those years and we just couldn’t get over the line but now we’ve done it.”
And they won it with a top drawer performance.
James Moore would certainly have been very proud of Willowbank FC – the 19/20 Junior Cup winners.