BENEATH the tears there were smiles too.
An emotional John Hart stepped briefly into the limelight last week when he was the special guest at a mayoral reception in Council Headquarters to mark his retirement from the Northern Ireland Milk Cup committee after 30 years of outstanding service.
Surrounded by family, Milk Cup colleagues, old Anderson Park friends and councillors from every party, the wee man dabbed tears from his eyes as the final whistle was blown on a memorable chapter of his life.
For the international youth football tournament - which celebrates its 30th anniversary this summer - it is an end of an era too.
It bid a fond farewell - but not goodbye - to one of its elder statesmen, small in stature but big in heart, a tireless worker who was there at the very beginning of what has become a true Northern Ireland success story and helped nurture it to worldwide acclaim.
Welcoming all the guests to the Wednesday evening reception Coleraine mayor, alderman Maurice Bradley, told John that the large turnout was “evidence of the great esteem in which you are held.”
Alderman Bradley first recalled seeing John when he was a teenage student at Coleraine Tech, watching him play on the wing at nearby Anderson Park. “He was one of the best players I’d seen in junior football and his dad ran the team,” the mayor told the invited guests.
He remarked that when it came to the Milk Cup John was best known for his many years of gathering sponsorship for the tournament programme and as an ever-present figure at his beloved Anderson Park during tournament week.
“To be involved with anything for 30 years I think is magnificent. John is one of the most respected and most loved gentlemen in this town.
“He has done so much for the Milk Cup and the borough and we thank you for your dedication and commitment.”
Among the invited guests were John’s good friends Norman ‘Jonah’ Neill, Dick Levear, Seamus Fisher and Jimmy McGonigle.
Jimmy said it was John who had asked him if he was interested in joining the Milk Cup committee in its formative days and he recalled sitting with him at the first meeting alongside the late George Logan and Willie Vauls.
He said that even in those early days John had predicted the tournament would get bigger and Jimmy said he would dearly love to see the tournament finals return to its spirtual home of Coleraine.
“Everyone in the town knows John,” Jimmy added. “I’d like to thank him for all the hard work he has done.”
Milk Cup chairman, Victor Leonard, said John was first involved with the Windsor Boys football team and was one of the founders of the Coleraine and District Youth League which brought in teams from the neighbouring areas of Ballymoney and Limavady.
He said it was the development of links with Jim Weir at the Northern Ireland Boys Football Association which eventually led to the conception of the Milk Cup.
Victor said: “John you’ve been a fantastic ambassador for the borough, the Milk Cup and Northern Ireland.
“I’m sure you have great recollections not just about some of the memorable trips we had over the years but also of hosting people and teams at Anderson Park.”
Revealing that John had now been made an Honorary Member of the Milk Cup Committee, Victor added: “John has not gone away. He is still very much a part of the Milk Cup.”
Fighting back the tears, John said he was honoured to be among “the Anderson Park mob and Milk Cup cronies”.
“It’s been 30 years of memories. I have a lot of wonderful memories of places I’ve been to and friends that I’ve made.
“You’re all welcome to come up to the house and have a cup of tea by the fire and I’d be happy to share those memories.”
John also referred to his good friend, Adrian Gilmore, who was not present at the reception and who had given so much to the tournament over the years. In reply the mayor said he would endeavour to make a similar presentation to Adrian - in John’s house if need be , as long as there was plenty of tea!
John quipped: “I’m not going to emigrate. You’ll not get rid of me yet.”
He added that in his travels he always ran into someone who knew about the Milk Cup and that was a source of great pride to him.
“We can be justifiably proud of the Milk Cup. We reared it as a baby and now it stands tall and on its own two feet and it is recognised throughout the world.”
Speaking afterwards, John described the Council tribute as “lovely” and thanked the mayor for his own personal input.
“My claim to fame is that I once had a cup of tea with Sir Alex Ferguson in his office at Old Trafford after being shown around the ground by Nobby Stiles.
“There have been many great players in the tournament over the years, too many to mention, but Steven Lomas played for Killowen at 11 and went on to captain Manchester City and Northern Ireland and is now manager of St Johnstone.
“Everyone worked so hard to make the Milk Cup what it is today. It’s a great credit to everyone.” REPORT: DAVID RANKIN