Belfast Telegraph

Football: Saint Joe of the Shankill

Paul Ferguson reports

The dream for any football loving kid in Northern Ireland has always been and still remains to sign for one of England or Scotland's big guns.

Stepping out at Old Trafford, Anfield, Stamford Bridge, Highbury, Ibrox or Celtic Park is the ultimate ambition.

Constant practice in the street and school playground keeps the faith.

Jumpers for goalposts and all that.

But then, there comes a time, when you reach a certain age, usually around 10 or 11, that a future talent needs a shop window. A stage to show off and develop natural skills. A stepping stone to greatness.

Every professional footballer throughout the world will have their own story of how they were picked from obscurity to play the greatest sport in the world for a living.

In Northern Ireland - for those growing up during the late eighties, nineties and at the very start of the new millennium - a great deal of those tales will centre around a boys club situated in the heart of west Belfast.

A club that has become synonymous with producing some of the finest and most talented footballers in the Province.

For two decades, St Andrews has dominated boys football and a scout from the top teams in England and Scotland would always be on the sidelines.

A team during the troubles when religion didn't matter. The Hammer on the Lower Shankill followed by Paisley Park on the West Circular Road was home to nothing else but football.

There simply isn't a club, at under-age level, in Northern Ireland which comes close to matching their honours - more than 200 trophies won while over 80 schoolboy internationals have been on their books.

St Andrews, therefore, had every right to feel proud as it celebrated it's 20th Anniversary at the Mountainview Club, off the Shankill Road in Belfast yesterday.

But it was a day tinged with sadness as the man known affectionately as Mr St Andrews, Joe Kincaid, announced, after all these years of transforming young people's lives including current internationals Keith Gillespie, Stuart Elliott, Stephen Craigan, Steve Davis, Chris Brunt and Warren Feeney, that he, in his words, will be "taking a back seat".

The founding father of the club needs a rest and Mrs Kincaid wants her husband back.

Twenty years of talent scounting, coaching, player promotion and teenage guidance has finally taken it's toll on the 48-year-old, who started the club after returning home from the World Cup in Mexico in 1986, wondering where the next Norman Whiteside was going to come from.

Kincaid is held in the highest esteem amongst his former players and it's the measure of the man's immense contribution to their careers that the current Northern Ireland heroes flew in especially yesterday to join in the celebrations with many Irish League stars.

They are only too aware that they were part of a special organisation. A youth club that formed the foundations in their life.

But little do they know that the club's success came about through chance.

Kincaid, after returning from Mexico, was well known in the Glencairn and Shankill area as a football man. He'd never really achieved anything as a player but his love and passion for the game was undiminished.

So he was delighted to be asked by a church worker from Cork at St Andrews to coach an under-13 team.

"I was only too happy to accept Andrew Kingston's (church worker) offer, " explains Kincaid. "I wanted to coach and give boys an opportunity to play in a team.

"But the first match was a bit of nightmare. We didn't even have a kit. The boys were running around in Man United and Liverpool tops. They were thrashed 8-1 by Saintfield and a young Chris Morgan scored FIVE.

"This didn't deter me though from setting up a good club for I knew I'd have the pick of the best players in the area because there wasn't a boys team around.

"I went along to the summer coaching courses with the idea of recruiting potential talent for St Andrews.

"And it was at one of the summer coaching courses, at Orangefield, that I first noticed Keith Gillespie. He ran like Seb Coe and his skills were excellent. I knew straight away that he was going to be a great player. I approached his father Harry, explained a little about St Andrews and asked him if he'd like to bring Keith along to the club.

"Keith joined the club, played in our under-13 team along with some exceptional young players, and in the first year won St Andrews' first trophy.

"Keith came through all the teams at St Andrews and I know at times he had a problem with his school Bangor Grammar allowing him to play football. But I think, in all his time with us, he only missed one or two games because he had to play hockey for the school."

Kincaid was determined to make St Andrews a force within the South Belfast League, at all age levels up to 16.

Once Gillespie's young team had moved to the next age group, Kincaid set about establishing more teams and in 1990, St Andrews had four sides in the South Belfast Leagues.

Kincaid didn't just narrow his search to the greater Belfast area, he scoured the entire country for talent.

"I'd contacts all over the place, so if I heard there was a young player down in Newcastle, who caught the eye I'd go and watch him play.

"There was a time when for some reason we had the reputation for nicking players but I can assure you that wasn't the case."

St Andrews grew rapidly, so Kincaid brought in trusted coaches to take charge of the all the different age group teams.

But he made sure that he was still in charge of the youngest team (under-11s) at St Andrews and vetted every player that joined the club.

Simply, a player couldn't sign up St Andrews unless Kincaid watched him play and agreed he was good enough.

Kincaid, who learnt his coaching skills through videos and courses, was thorough in recruiting young players for St Andrews and a week didn't go by where he hadn't watched at least four or five under-age matches. And it was on his way to watch a game that he came across Cardiff City striker Warren Feeney.

Kincaid decided to head over to Strandtown Primary School in east Belfast to view a match but unbeknown to him, the game had been postponed and so he just happened to spot three boys kicking a ball about near a corner flag.

"This little blond kid stood out. So I went over and asked him what his name was. Even in those days Warren was a cheeky little thing and asked why? I told him because I thought he was a decent footballer. Once he told me his name, I was able to tell him I knew his dad and his dad's mate Dennis Reid.

"I honestly believe the big fella upstairs directed me to most of my players."

Recommendations about new players came in on a weekly basis and they were all followed up by Kincaid. That's how the likes of Stuart Elliott, Steve Davis, Chris Brunt and Stephen Craigan all came to play for St Andrews.

"I always told the boys that if they felt a boy they played with in the street or Boys Brigade was good enough to let me know," admitted Kincaid.

"I wouldn't bring a player to the club though unless I was going to play him. That's what I told their fathers. There was no way I was going to allow a kid to be a sub for a year. That's just unfair. At my club every kid was good enough to get a game."

Every season, Kincaid was planning for the following year. There was only one time when Kincaid wasn't able to field a side in the League and that was when Lisburn Youth, with David Healy, Aaron Hughes, Grant McCann and co, swept all before them.

St Andrews have been members of three different leagues during the last 20 years - South Belfast, Dundonald and Lisburn. Kincaid feels extremely proud that they have dominated all the divisions they have played in and when it came to the Northern Ireland Champion of Champions, they cleaned up.

Kincaid says: "I can't think of any side who came close to us. Lisburn Youth, Portadown Boys, Banbridge and Dungoyne all had good sides but nothing compared to what St Andrews produced on a consistent basis.

"After Keith Gillespie helped us win our first Champion of champions in 1987, we never really looked back and his side were something very special.

"I've been very fortunate to have some great teams. The team that included Ryan McCann, Gary Browne, Mark Magennis, Andrew Dickson, Bo Willis, Craig Gilmore and Stevie Ferguson was a cracking team.

"As was Stephen Craigan's side. He came to me from the Beersbridge Road and his was an incredible team with Paul McKnight, Jim Redpath, Jamie Marks, Derek Johnston, John O'Boyle and Sheldon Coulter, who won a European Cup winners medal with Ulster, involved. It was great to watch all the teams move up through the years and then at the end of it move on to pastures new. "

Kincaid played a pivatol role in securing a number of his players cross channel football. Scouts from the major clubs would ask his advice and he in turn would recommend players.

He would watch with a great sense of pride as his boys made their way in the professional game. Not all made it as you can imagine but that was to be expected.

One of the greatest nights of Kincaid's life came on November 15, 2005. Seven former St Andrews boys represented Lawrie Sanchez's Northern Ireland side against mighty Portugal and Warren Feeney scored in the 1-1 draw.

Only two months before than six of them performed miracles to defeat David Beckham's England at Windsor Park.

Kincaid beams: "I don't think there's a boys club in the world who have produced as many internationals as we have.

"Maybe somewhere like St Kitts or a really small nation but I think it's incredible.

"Keith Gillespie, Stuart Elliott, Stephen Craigan, Warren Feeney, Steve Davis, Chris Brunt and Peter Thompson all played that night and it was brilliant for me."

Manchester United's young star Craig Cathcart is the latest former St Andrews boy to make it big.

Unfortunately though, he may be the last as Kincaid has probably written the west Belfast boys club's final chapter of a remarkable story.

He says: "There are only two teams remaining at St Andrews. When the under-15 team finishes we will have one team for the immediate future. All the coaches have worked tirelessly alongside me and I can't thank them enough.

"Walter Smith (Rangers), Jimmy Bell (Rangers kitman), David Jeffrey (Linfield), Iam McFaul and John Chalmers (Rangers Youth Development Officer). Those people deserve a special thank you from me."

In truth, yesterday was not only celebrating 20 years of St Andrews but Kincaid's unbelievable contribution to the youth game.

There are many people around Northern Ireland who contribute so much to boys football.

But if it's measured on success then Joe Kincaid is head and shoulders above his competition.

Kincaid gave players a shop window to display their talents and thus fulfil their ambitions.

From the street to Old Trafford, Windsor Park and Anfield. It seems dreams really do come true.

And Joe Kincaid was only happy to help...

Simply the best

The talent at St Andrews is endless...

But who, in Joe Kincaid's eyes was the best?

Sheffield United's Keith Gillespie, Aston Villa's Steve Davis and Sheffield Wednesday's Chris Brunt are all taken into consideration.

So it might surprise you when Kincaid says: "The two that stick out for me during the last 20 years are Robert Skillen and Paul McKnight.

"Two cracking players who both went to Rangers but unfortunately had to come home.

"Robert in particular was pure class. An inspirational schoolboy captain, tremendous leadership qualities for someone so young.

"He was a box-to-box player and I remember he played for Rangers against the Scotland international team behind closed doors at Ibrox.

"Celtic's Paul McStay was surprised at Robert's ability and said if he stuck at it he would go far.

"But he got homesick and even though Walter Smith tried to pursade him to stay, he just gave it all up and came home.

"I tried to get him fixed up with the Blues, but it was if he just lost interest and didn't play again.

"Paul in my eyes was like the Brazilian Romario. That's who he reminded me off. He was the star.

"I was delighted when he got his move to Rangers and then made his debut at only 17. However injury has ruined his career.

"A bad tackle meant he needed a hip injury and he has never got over that. He went to see Gazza's specialist but even he couldn't work the magic that was needed.

"Paul's been back playing in the Irish League but injury keeps on hampering him. Such a pity because he had terrific talent."

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph