BALLYMENA bragging rights are at stake in the FA Cup this weekend as two managers – who attended schools in the town – go head-to-head in the famous old competition.
Michael O’Neill’s Stoke City take on Leicester City, managed by Brendan Rodgers, on Saturday afternoon.
Or some might view it as St Louis Grammar School versus St Patrick’s College.
O’Neill (51), grew up in Ballymena and attended St Louis and Rodgers (47), from Carnlough went to St Patrick’s.
Both played for Star United in Ballymena.
‘Stoke Sentinel’ reported Rodgers as saying: “I know Michael well. He’s a few years older than me and played for the Star United team that I played for in Ballymena as well, although obviously he played before, and he went to St Louis’ Grammar School in Ballymena, I went to St Patrick’s, so I was aware of Michael in my teenage years.
“He had an excellent career as a player and he was always very bright. He was always going to be successful in whatever he went into.
“I have a huge admiration for Michael. He’s a good man and he’s done an excellent job since he’s gone into Stoke as well.”
Rodgers said: “I’m pretty sure we were just outside the age bands to play against each other. When I was starting school at St Patrick’s, he will have been in fifth or sixth year at St Louis.
“But we passed each other. I was aware when I went to school in Ballymena – it’s a small country but particularly the towns are small – and you get to know of the talents. Of course, clearly, I was aware of Michael as someone who was a fantastic player who was interested in his education as well.
“He was always a bright guy. That was important for him as well as having a football career – and he was able to go on and do both.”
Michael O’Neill had previously spoken to the media about his Ballymena links with Brendan.
In an interview with a Scottish newspaper in 2016 he said: “I know Brendan quite well.
“We grew up in a similar part of Northern Ireland. He’s a couple of years younger than me.
“He’s from Carnlough and I grew up in Ballymena.
“But we actually ended up playing for the same boys club — Star United in Ballymena.
“We never really played together because I was always playing in the older age groups.
“But I always followed his career and I’ve seen him at events and stuff.
“He was a good player, someone who was very technical. He was good on the ball.
“I think that shows in how he wants his teams to play as well.
“He was just unlucky, he got that injury at about 18 or 19.
“I suppose that was fate in a way because he turned to coaching.
“Brendan has now been coaching for 20 years and that’s the advantage coaches sometimes have over people who played for longer. He overcame that major disappointment to have a fantastic coaching and management career. I guess it’s a good story for our boys’ club that we came through there.
“Arthur McClean had a big part in that. Arthur was the guy behind Star United and managed the teams.
“You need someone who’s going to give up their time for under-age football and kids football.
“Arthur was the man who did that. It just shows you. Brendan was travelling 20 or 30 miles to go to Star United and play.
“They were good times. Arthur is still there, the club has maybe changed its name but he’s still involved. He’s been involved in youth football all his life. He’s a good guy and he gave us a chance to play.
“But it’s been great to see Brendan do what he has in his career.”