The year was 1983 and UUC (then NUU) had just won their first ever Crowley Cup after a dramatic penalty shootout victory over UCD.
Club President Tom Stark didn’t know it at the time but a fresh faced first year in the squad Micky Willis would go on to play for the club over 500 times and manage nearly as many matches over the next three decades. Stark also didn’t know that it would take his beloved UUC another 30 years to get their hands on the trophy again, himself and Willis standing at the sidelines celebrating the final whistle together.
The week started for UUC with a hard match against Trinity, the gale force wind affecting any quality of football being played. Coleraine knew the team who made least mistakes would win and played in their opponents half as much as possible. A first half Diarmuid Sherry header was cancelled out just before half time. The second half saw UUC’s two other centre halves get on the scoresheet to wrap the game up. Craig Doak scrambling in from a corner and a Ross Handford piledriver of a freekick from fully 35 yards wrapped up the game for Coleraine.
The semi final pitted Coleraine against tournament favourites Cork in what turned out to be the game of the tournament. The first half started all Cork and Coleraine were nearly shocked to find themselves a goal up 10 minutes in. A ball down the channel to Steafan McKenna saw him jink past two men and fire home.
Coleraine held on until 10 minutes before half time when they were caught napping from a throw in and the ball was cut back for the Cork forward to score. Against the wind and up the hill for the second half Coleraine were forced into a defensive change at half time, defender McLaughlin coming on for forward Reverte in an attempt to frustrate their opponents.
Coleraine still had a few chances with McKenna’s pace a real threat, but in truth it was all one way traffic directed at Coleraine’s goal. How Cork didn’t score in the second half must still be a mystery to them, constant corners and freekicks being fired in at the Coleraine goal were met with either with a Coleraine head or a McGeough hand to keep them at bay and kept them out until extra time.
The first period of extra time with the wind seemed to give the Coleraine boys the breather they needed to see the match out, with the second period bringing on another Cork onslaught. Coleraine stifling their opponents with basically nine in defence for the last 10 minutes to try and get to penalties, but it invited Cork onto them which crucially left space up the pitch for McKenna.
With two minutes to go Freeman got the ball and played a superb ball through to McKenna who beat his man and dispatched it into the corner to give UUC an unlikely lead. Cork still had three corners and two goalmouth scrambles, but they couldn’t get the goal and Coleraine somehow were through to the final.
The final was an all Northern affair pitting Coleraine against their old rivals Queens. Finals in recent years have been a painful experience for UUC, three Collingwood finals and one Crowley Cup final defeat in the last nine years were not good omens before the match. Player/manager McGeough and captain Handford were the only remaining players from those defeats and with Stark and Willis joining the team in the changing room before kick off no-one needed reminded of what was at stake.
UUC, playing against the wind, settled quickly and dealt easily with whatever Queens threw at them. Midway through the half Coleraine took the lead, French forward Gael Reverte received the ball, cut inside and sent a low drive beneath the keeper. The closest UUC came to doubling their lead before half time was a Handford freekick from wide which eluded everyone, keeper included but bounced back off the bar and was cleared.
The second half started with massive pressure by UUC but they couldn’t put the game to bed, Gribben had a one-on-one well saved by the keeper. Five minutes later Hynds was through, but again his effort was well saved. UUC must have thought it wasn’t to be there day when Gribben had a shot that bounced off the inside of the post and rolled agonisingly close to the line with no one following in.
With 15 minutes to go disaster struck, Queens through one-on-one saw McGeough save and Doak clear out for a corner which was converted by an unmarked Queens forward from eight yards out. On the back foot, three matches in three days began to show - Coleraine were forced into two changes in two minutes.
Worse was to come when goalscorer Reverte saw red with five minutes left for a shocking challenge, Coleraine were yet again forced to try to hang on and try and force penalties. They shouldn’t have worried, three minutes into injury time a Handford freekick was headed out for a corner. With regular taker Hynds down with cramp, McKenna took over and swung in for Diarmuid Sherry to head in from four yards to spark wild celebrations from the Coleraine bench which lasted well into Monday morning.
UUC, now with a 30-year monkey off their back, will turn their sights to the Collingwood next year after two years out, if they show the never say die attitude they showed at the Crowley they will fancy their chances.