There seems to have been a steady fall in general footballing Christmasness over the years. The once-proud tradition of Christmas Day football is just a distant memory for most, with December now a time of tedious transfer rumours and complaints about fixture congestion. Even the Boxing Day fixtures, the modern face of Yuletide football, have been packaged up and sold off to the highest bidder. ‘Sit back and follow all nine matches on Boxing Day from 11:30am’ implores the press release. This year, Christmas is brought to you by Amazon.
But what we really want at Christmas is tradition. We want those long-standing rituals with long-forgotten origins. And while pitches elsewhere fall silent this Christmas Day, football’s festive spirit lives on in Belfast as Seaview hosts the 125th Steel and Sons Cup final.
Open to teams in Northern Ireland’s third tier and below, the Steel and Sons Cup dates back to the Victorian era and is one of Europe’s oldest football competitions. It was named after Steel & Sons Jewellers of Belfast, whose owner, Mr David Steel, donated the eponymous trophy in an act of seasonal charity. Since then, Christmas Day football has largely been lost, but the Steel and Sons Cup has soldiered on through 125 years of footballing and societal changes.
The first final took place in 1895, the same year as the invention of the radio, and saw Linfield Swifts defeat Cliftonville Olympic 4-2. Early editions were not without controversy and the 1904 final needed five matches to decide a winner. Games were drawn and replayed, abandoned due to snow and annulled after protest before Glentoran II were finally crowned champions, by which time even the hardiest of turkey leftovers had been binned.
After nearly 80 years of alternating venues, Crusaders’ Seaview Ground became the permanent home in 1972 and has hosted all but one of the finals since. It has become integral to the tradition and is often the stage where unlikely heroes announce themselves.
Much like Kevin McCallister and Rudolph before him, little was expected from Andy McClean in the build-up to Christmas 1997. The Linfield Swifts forward had been out of manager Harry Blair’s plans and with the Swifts’ cup side full of established Irish League players he was just happy to be involved: “[Blair] told me at training a couple of days before the final that I would be on the bench, which I was more than pleased with,” remembers McClean. “It was Christmas Day and there was a huge crowd at Seaview, so it wasn’t your average Swifts fixture. “I was sitting on the bench thinking I probably wouldn’t get a chance,” he says, “but there were tired legs in the second half, so I think Harry put me on in hope more than expectation.”
Read | The story of Jackie Maxwell: the selfless Northern Irishman whose work in football influenced the lives of an entire community
After a breathless 90 minutes the game was goalless and, due to a recent rule change, the Steel and Sons Cup final went into golden goal for the first time in its 101-year history. The Swifts’ opposition, Dundela, had been on top for much of the game but when another attack broke down the ball came to McClean who sensed an opportunity with the defence out of position: “I found myself in a lot of space on the right flank. I just carried the ball forward down the wing. The full-back showed me inside so I cut in and, when I reached the penalty box, I just hit a shot with my left foot. It went past Alan Huxley and hit the inside of the far post and trickled over the line.
“Everybody just went mad when I scored because we knew it was over. I ran to the stand to celebrate in front of my family, but all the players and staff just piled on top of me. It was an incredible experience. Really surreal.”
Despite etching his name into Linfield football history this would be one of McClean’s last games for the club. The forward moved to hometown Dunmurry Rec. the following summer, where he would retain his Steel and Sons title the following season with a 2-0 win against Royal Ulster Constabulary. Speaking with considerable expertise in the Christmas cup final, McClean encourages players to make the most of the occasion when they get the chance: “You’ve got to be sure you make it count. Give it your all, remember everything and don’t let the day slip by.”
That famous victory in 1997 was Linfield Swifts’ ninth overall and they notched up their tenth with another win over Dundela in 2016. This left both the Swifts and Dundela on ten, joint-second behind Glentoran II in the all-time standings.
The Swifts had a chance to pull clear in 2017 when they faced Newington, a side from the Antrim Road area of Belfast who had never previously reached the Steel and Sons final. Newington were undoubtedly the underdogs but Padraig Scollay, their 33-year-old winger, felt they were capable of staging an upset: “In the week leading up to the game a lot of people were writing us off but that just spurred us on,” he said.
The game remained goalless for the first 80 minutes of a drizzly Christmas morning before Scollay leapt on a loose ball in the Swifts’ box and rifled home the winner to send the Newington fans delirious. “It’s the greatest moment in the club’s history and the greatest moment in my footballing career,” said Scollay after the game. “We got brilliant backing today, a lot of people took time out of their Christmas Day to come down and you have to thank them”.
It was an unforgettable moment for all involved but one that Scollay will hope to replicate this year as Newington feature in another final. Now 35, he started in this year’s semi-final against Belfast Celtic as the ‘Ton secured a nerve-wracking penalty shoot-out win.
Read | Street Soccer NI: the charity changing the lives of Northern Ireland’s most vulnerable citizens
For the teams involved, Steel and Sons glory guarantees a place in Belfast’s football history, but for many in attendance the final is just another much-loved festive tradition – as much a part of Christmas as turkey and tinsel. “The atmosphere on Christmas morning is brilliant,” says Michael Long: director, PR man and stadium announcer for Crusaders and veteran of 42 Steel and Sons Cup finals.
It’s an opportunity for people to come together, he says, “regardless of who is in the final but because they came 30 years [ago] with their grandfather and father, brothers, uncles and friends, and have done so year after year. This is what you do on Christmas morning in Northern Ireland if you like football.”
For these stalwarts of the Steel and Sons Cup, the game is a point of local pride. Staging a cup final on 25 December is no mean feat and only made possible by Belfast’s thriving footballing community: “We have many unsung heroes who make this event happen each year,” says Michael. “From the Safety Officer who would open the ground shortly after 9am, to the groundsmen and the PA announcer – who just happens to be me. The stewards of Crusaders, the people who man the burger outlets … the bar staff in the social club who serve quite a few drinks on Christmas morning. They all play their part in the tradition of the Steel & Sons Cup final.”
With the big day now so close that the wait is officially measured in ‘sleeps’, what can Northern Ireland’s luckiest football fans expect to wake up to this Christmas morning? Newington fan Chris White was in the crowd for their first win in 2017 and remembers it as a unique match, both in importance and spectacle: “I was there two years ago, [there was a] bit of a nervous atmosphere as no one wants to lose … also a lot of neutrals at the game as it’s a big occasion over here.”
He will be there on Christmas morning this year too, and will be bringing son Fionan along. The young ‘Tons fan was also in attendance for November’s semi-final victory and watched his cousin, Daniel White, score the winning penalty to secure another Seaview final. This year for Fionan, football and Christmas will go hand in hand: “[The plan is] presents from 7am, then down to the game for 10am,” says Chris, clearly proud of his son’s enthusiasm for the festive tradition. “His cousin, who will be playing, asked him what he wants for Christmas. He replied ‘Newington to win the cup’.”
While there is no guarantee of victory, those at Seaview this year can be sure to find a proud Christmas tradition that has lived on through three centuries. A last bastion of peace on the turf and goodwill to linesmen, the glory days of festive football are alive and well for the 125th Steel and Sons Cup final.
By Will Gittins @willgitt
Photo: Co Antrim FA