Star turns: The brilliant Belfast boys who defied the sectarian tide

The Star of the Sea were a tight group of young lads before the Troubles tore them apart

They know the address by heart – 749 Shore Road – even though the Star of the Sea Boys Club was demolished decades ago. The storming success of their juvenile football team of the late 1960s and the powerful atmosphere within Old Scores, the 1983 BBC documentary made about those players, means that the club is often identified with that lost side. But talk to any of the team and they will tell you that the importance of Star of the Sea was much deeper than any sport.

Yes, it was athletics in summer, it was basketball all winter, it had new table tennis sets, it was football, football, football, and it had spanking new facilities. The Star disco ran every Friday night and, afterwards, Liam Conlon and the others would bus the youngsters home. Dr Conlon had a gruff manner and a commanding nature.

"Big Liam was Star," says Willie Caldwell. There was one golden rule: no religious talk or symbolism. From the beginning, kids from both communities were welcome. Dr Conlon didn't make any big noise about it. He just showed that it could work. People are people. Kids are kids. Star of the Sea existed and thrived at that rare intersection where a beautiful idea met absolute pragmatism.

"Our lives just revolved around it," says Bill McCotter now. "That man had such an influence on me and well, thousands like me. Dr Liam used to say, if you want to have any influence, you have to get involved. So he put us in charge of the tuck shop. He would teach you about trust, about being responsible for the money. He'd put you on the committee even though you were a kid. Where would I have been without Star of the Sea? There were thousands of us that were kept off the street because of the circumstances that we were in."

Caldwell thinks he was about 11-years-old when he joined Star. He'd been playing table tennis one afternoon on a table made from a metal road sign. Marty Quinn told him he should go down to the club; that they had proper tennis tables down there. Willie told him he couldn't; that Star was for Catholics. You can, Marty Quinn told him. Not a bother.

“So I went down and started to play with Star in the wee green hut. Then Dessie [Black] and the rest came down.”

"The rest" turned out to be a bunch of kids that formed one of the best football teams the city would produce. Many came from Rathcoole, built in the 1950s by the Northern Irish Housing Trust and housing 10,000 residents from both Catholic and Protestant communities.

"Magical," is Raymond McCord's description of growing up in Rathcoole as a kid. "Loved it. Loved it. Street teams all over. Nobody cared what you were. You were just one of the best players. Kids were respectful. You rarely saw a policeman. If you gave a woman walking down the street any cheek, you didn't have to wait for your parents to clip you: she'd clip you! I broke a window once. We were out playing football. Ran like the hammers.

“My parents did shift work in the factories, in the mills. I was in bed waiting for them to get home. The policeman came. Because of that you got the belt from your father – and a cuff around the ears from your mother. It was because of the policeman more than the window. You brought shame to the house. But now some of the parents feel it is a badge of honour if the police come to the house. Times change.”

They were besotted with football in that period when suburban roads were primarily make-shift football pitches. So they were already decent ball players by the time Liam Conlon started working with them. Dessie Black was the goalkeeper and, like Caldwell, has spent most of his adult life in Guernsey. Anytime he drinks a glass of orange squash, he is transported back to the canteen at Star. Late 1960s pop songs heard at the supermarket or on the car radio have the same effect. The sounds, the smells, the voices.

"Star" is a state of mind for them all. Dessie can talk of the team with an immediacy that defies decades. McCord was, by general consensus, the exception in the group, blessed with a burning talent. He played for Northern Ireland Boys for three years and went for trials to Manchester United. Denis Sweeney, Paddy Davidson and Tommy O'Neill also played for Northern Ireland Boys. McCord himself reckons that Terry Nicholl was the one with the right stuff. "I'd pick him every day of the week."

O'Neill, another Rathcoole boy, also went across to England to audition for Blackpool and although Wolves later invited him for trials, he never went. One day after a game, Willie Caldwell was approached by Bob Bishop, who walked around Belfast as a seer: the man who discovered George Best.

“Didn’t he offer you a trial?” Dessie prompts one afternoon on a zoom call from Willie’s kitchen in Guernsey. The two men have been thick as thieves for 50 years.

"Nah, it wasn't that," Willie clarifies. "It was one day we played Bob's team, Cregagh Boys. They had Sammy McIlroy and a few others. We beat them 2-0. And Bob took my particulars and he said, 'I've been watching you, son. You are decent.' And then he asked me how old I was. And I was coming up to 16. And he stood back then and looked at me and went, 'oh you are a wee bit small. I'll be keeping an eye on you.' That was the last I heard of him. I should have said, well, George Best was only a small wee fella, too. I was never as good as that by the way! But that is my claim to fame."

"They were fun days. I didn't go anywhere else. Home from school, have my tea, up to the club. And then there all day Saturday and Sunday."

Bobby Sands played left wing and could run all day. Michael Acheson was right back. Jordi Hussey was another very crafty player. They were a team for about four seasons, winning all before them in the Boys club leagues and taking regular trips across the Border to play against southern teams. At under-16 level, they won the Northern Ireland Cup final at Celtic Park and then won the All-Ireland cup, a competition featuring the top four teams from Dublin and the North. "The highlight for us was going to Celtic Park. That's where the finals were played. We won a lot of cups," says Black in a matter of fact way.

“They were so, so good,” says Bill McCotter, a former Ireland schools basketball international who coached at Star. “Tommy was a very, very good footballer. And Raymond McCord, in my opinion, was the very best of them, a fabulous footballer. I used to coach them some basketball. It was very new then. Bobby used to joke that it was a sissy’s game so I’d get him on the court and beat the tar out of him to show him it wasn’t. Willie Caldwell was a brilliant table tennis player. But they were such a unique team. I don’t think they lost a game in five years to anybody. Then, obviously, the Troubles just . . . well.”

Human decency

Because this is a Belfast story that took place at a time when the city was moving towards a darkness its people could not have possibly imagined, it is not straightforward. It is not without grief and heartbreak and ruined lives. But it does possess an undeniable and vitally bright core of human decency. It contains enduring friendship and laughter.

Bizarrely, it even contains a connection to the West End and Andrew Lloyd Webber. And it possesses the kernel of a fiercely tight group of young lads who, for a few football seasons, managed to dodge the governing forces of sectarianism and the coming chasm. For a precious winter or two, the Star of the Sea football team was just that.

“It was all left at the door,” says Caldwell. “We were all one. We all got on. When they made the television documentary about Star, I think there were six Catholics and five Protestants in that team. We all knew where everyone came from. And none of us gave a shit.”

Their social lives revolved around the club. Every few Saturdays they might wander up to Donegall Street to get a Ben Sherman in Frasers or a haircut.

“But I would say I spent four full years of my life around that club,” Caldwell says. “They were fun days. I didn’t go anywhere else. Home from school, have my tea, up to the club. And then there all day Saturday and Sunday.”

They were a football team from the ages of about 13 to 18: transformative years. Naturally, there were alliances. Tommy O’Neill and Bobby Sands were inseparable. O’Neill also had time for Michael Acheson, whom he described as a “tough footballer”.

“Very fond of him,” he said in Old Scores.

Hussey and McCord got on with everyone. Denis Sweeney, in the same documentary, reckoned that there was always a friction between him and Bobby Sands. But those normal personality clashes weren’t governed by background.

“There was never any violence. We all got along. But I do remember we had to fight one night,” Dessie Black says, breaking into a sheepish laugh. “Me and Bobby. See. I wore a green suit that was about two foot bigger than me. My Ma wouldn’t let me go to the disco if I didn’t put it on. So I went down. Bobby and Tommy and a few of the boys were taking the piss out of my suit.

“Me and Bobby agreed to fight the Monday night up at the pitch. But neither of us wanted to fight. So we went to basketball training on Monday night. And we both said: okay, let’s get it over with now. Tommy and the boys were stirring it up. So anyway the two of us had to go up to pitch and fight. It was the worst fight in the world! He didn’t want to hit me and I didn’t want to hit him.”

Black and Sands were in the same class all through secondary at Stella Maris: 1c, 2c, 3C. "Then in our last year, they put us in 4A. And we were: what's this all about? Loved our football, loved our sport. Great man, like. Loved the man."

McCord says that even after sectarian emotions had started to ferment in Rathcoole, nothing changed when it came to Star. His father was a practicing Orange man. Raymond had no real interest in the Order. But one evening in Rathcoole, his father met with a group of what he now knows were paramilitaries in the house. As they were heading out, he asked them for a lift to training. He laughs now at the reaction when he told them to stop on the Shore Road outside the club. They were aghast. McCord mimics the moment, exaggerating the strong north Belfast accent.

“You’re going in dure! You can’t go in dure! It’s all Fenians. Well, I play football for them,” he recounts. “It was all water off a duck’s back. We were 16-years-old, you know? Our interests were football. And a girlfriend.”

"It was a friendship borne out of playing football. The friendships we made in the club meant we did socialise outside of it. It was all left at the door. It didn't matter."

It was around then that the offers started coming from England. Tommy O'Neill and Raymond McCord both went to trials at Blackpool. A few months later, McCord was recruited by Manchester United. Paddy Crerand, the Scotland international and a god to them, was his trainer. One day McCord and one of the English boys were clashing at training at the Cliff.

“He was one of these guys who love themselves,” McCord says. “So I let him know what a Belfast tackle was. Paddy Crerand stepped in. He made them run laps in opposite directions.

After a bit, he called McCord aside. “’You a Paddy or a Billy son?’ ” he asked. McCord hardly knew what he meant.

“I’m a Paddy. Georgie’s a Billy.”

Then Paddy Crerand said: “See the next time you kick that fella? Do it when I’m not looking.”

He was there six weeks when he phoned his father at an arranged time on his neighbour's phone in Rathcoole. "Aye, brilliant," he said when his father asked him how it was going. And for reasons he still can't fully articulate, he got a boat home the next day. He walked away from Manchester United in the year they were champions of Europe.

"I regret that I didn't find out how far I could have gone. I regret that there. But you know, Jimmy Nicholl, the footballer, lived close to me. And I have to say Terry Nicholl from Star was better than Jimmy Nicholl. Terry had it all – skill. He had the heart. Didn't get the credit. We had a lot of good players. But if I stayed at Man United – and it's not to be all soppy – but I wouldn't have ended up with my three sons. So if that is the choice, Manchester United or the three boys, then it's the three sons all the time."

Sea tide

Meanwhile, in Belfast, the fractures were beginning to show. What Dr Conlon was trying to protect his team against was like repelling the sea tide with a bucket. After the Star discos, they were bussed home to their doors. But there were other nights out, too. A bunch of them went out after a big win – a quarter- or semi-final played on a Saturday afternoon in December 1971. "I think Terry Nicholl, Ray McCord, Michael Acheson and myself went to a disco on the New Lodge Road, which is a totally Catholic area," says Caldwell.

“It was the night a bomb had exploded in McGurk’s bar at the bottom on the New Lodge. People had been killed. And when word got up to us, the boys came up and told us and we had to jump out the back window and get out of there. But put it this way: we were still close friends. It was a friendship borne out of playing football. The friendships we made in the club meant we did socialise outside of it. It was all left at the door. It didn’t matter.”

Until it did. Agitation for civil rights gained momentum through the autumn of 1968 and by August 1969, escalating fear and determination in both communities broke into a storm of rioting that swept Derry and, a few nights later, the various sectarian intersections across Belfast. Families from both communities were burnt out of their houses with the result that Rathcoole became flooded with Protestant families seeking refuge. Shortly afterwards, Catholic families were forcibly evacuated. The windows of Tommy O'Neill's house were smashed in. His family left and eventually found somewhere to live in Ardoyne. The Sands family ended up in Twinbrook estate. As an experiment in social harmony, Rathcoole was done.

“It was a disgrace,” McCord says now. “I got into more trouble then. I wasn’t sticking up for Catholics. I was sticking up for my friends. And the people who did that were bigots. Some of these families were there from when Rathcoole was built. You ask people like myself – I moved there as a kid from York Street. We lived behind Gallagher’s factory. When I look back I think of some real good friends. There was a guy at the bottom of the street, a good footballer. Liam McDonald.

"He was murdered by people from within Rathcoole. And another lad Francie Reilly, about a year younger than me he was, and he was shot. And that was going on and I was playing with Star. Yet, I was no danger as a Protestant from Catholics in Star of the Sea. But the point is if you asked people in Rathcoole which they'd prefer, they'd go back to pre-1969. It was better."

And life sped up for the Star of the Sea boys also. When training began after the 1971 season, some of the boys, like Terry Nicholl, simply never returned. “The party was over,” he told Olenka Frenkiel in Old Scores. Frenkiel had arrived in Belfast in the late 1970s as a young BBC reporter when the Troubles had become irretrievably mired in hatred. She heard a half-story about a cross-community football team which seemed too fabulous to be true and started to make inquiries.

The 40-minute film has now been viewed almost half a million times on YouTube and it's a stunning if sombre piece of social history. Frenkiel encounters the former players a decade after the team had become fragmented and life experience had narrowed their ideology. They are all still young men, bearing the vaguely glam fashion totems of the day – blond highlights, ear piercings. By then, their Star side was a team of ghosts.

The reason I left Belfast was because I was a Protestant with predominantly Catholic friends. I went to Catholic areas to socialise and I knew it was only a matter of time before I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Dessie Black left Belfast in his late teens: he headed to the Shetlands, realised it was Baltic and then made a life in Guernsey. He continued to play and coach football at a high level. His son, Ryan Zico Black, played professionally for a few years. When the Brazilian legend for whom Ryan was named heard on the grapevine of this honour, he invited the Blacks to Rio – Ryan Black ended up scoring a goal in an exhibition game in the Maracana and featuring on a Brazilian television news feature. Caldwell followed Black's path, arriving in Guernsey on the Saturday night that Abba won the 1974 Eurovision.

“The reason I left Belfast was because I was a Protestant with predominantly Catholic friends. I went to Catholic areas to socialise and I knew it was only a matter of time before I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Denis Sweeney had walked 150 yards past his local pub one Friday night when a bomb exploded inside. He would have been in the pub had Star not had a match on Saturday morning. He watched numbly as the maimed and injured were carried out and nobody knew what to do. There and then he resolved to become a doctor and later set up a practice from which he has recently retired.

Three of the team became directly involved in paramilitary organisations. Terry Nicholl, raised a Mormon, joined the UVF and spent three years in the Maze prison. He was there the same time as Bobby Sands, who was serving time for arms possession in the IRA compound. But few words passed between them. Michael Acheson was jailed for 17 years for his part in a UVF shooting, during which time he re-directed himself in Christianity and education.

Caldwell, on a visit home to Belfast, met Acheson at a bus stop one day. They had a lovely chat. It turned out that the shooting for which he was later sentenced had already happened. Even now Caldwell can’t reconcile the act with the guy he knew. “How he was so nice to me and could do that.”

On Guernsey, Black and Caldwell watched the evening news in disbelief during the Hunger Strikes of May 1981. In a matter of months, Bobby Sands’s name and his image became known across the globe. It was difficult for his former team-mates to pair the Republican icon with the team-mate they knew: scampish, an athlete, tough, quick tempered.

“Always remember this one game,” says McCord. “Scuffle at the bottom of the pitch. A rough match. Bobby took his boot off and was clipping a fella. The crowd was cheering this on. You are 16 and the crowd is cheering a fight on. Things like that happened every Saturday. But Sandsy . . . I often found him quiet in his own way. I didn’t see him getting into trouble at all.”

Of all the interviews conducted by Frenkiel, there is a haunting aspect to the segments with Tommy O’Neill. He’s sitting outside on one of those pale Irish summer days and there’s the sound of children playing in the background. O’Neill is handsome in that early 1980s mod fashion. And he seems utterly broken by the events of the previous decade. He’d lost his co-ordinates overnight in the displacement from Rathcoole and was understandably bitter at the sense that his family was abandoned. McCord, though, is adamant that he did everything he could to step in.

“I’ve always been straight that I was annoyed by Tommy’s comments in that documentary when he was put out of Rathcoole. They weren’t justified. Other players weren’t happy. Plus, Terry Nicholl lived on the bottom of Tommy’s street. And if he had been there he would have tried to stop the O’Neills windows being put in.”

Whatever the circumstances, O’Neill’s world was upended. He’d spent every day with Sands – running, football, discos – but saw him maybe twice in the seven years before he died in the hunger strikes. Frenkiel pushes him to acknowledge that he was a classy footballer and he smirks and says, “You tryin’ to give me a big head or something”, before insisting he wasn’t good enough to make it in England. Then there is a silence when O’Neill is asked if he would like to see the players of the Star team again.

“Love to. Yeah.”

Savage attack

He never did. O'Neill was still in his 30s when he died. Terry Nicholl also died young. Bobby Sands was 27 when he died on hunger strike on May 5th 1981, less than a month after he had been elected as MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone. In Old Scores, Raymond McCord is set to emigrate for Australia. As it transpired, his visa application was turned down. He stayed in Belfast and made a life. In 1997, his son Raymond junior, himself a highly promising footballer, was beaten to death by the UVF in a savage attack. His body was dumped in a quarry in Newtownabbey, not too far from the old Star pitches.

Since that time, McCord has been an active and vocal victims campaigner. He has spoken to Congress in Washington and actively lobbies politicians in Belfast and Dublin. Through the unspeakable sadness, he's managed to retain a lively sense of humour and given half a chance he'll tell anyone who'll listen that there is something special about the people in his city – when they are left to get on with it.

"People find this hard to believe. I could go for a beer on the Falls Road and they'll find out who I am and ask questions. If I sat down in Sandy Row I'd be shot because I speak out about the paramilitaries. I speak out about Republican paramilitaries too but they don't want to kill me. You don't fear it. But you are aware of it. If you lived in fear . . . you'd need tablets. You'd be paranoid. I'd like to see sectarianism being made a crime. That is where we need to start. I would like to see our schools integrated. We had an integrated football team at Star which was the best junior side on the island of Ireland. We didn't know each other and we ended up being great friends. It shows what sport and integration can do. There was no politics involved. And no church people."

Towards the end of Old Scores, Denis Sweeney reflects on the way circumstances and the prevailing political and social storm caused his football team to scatter in such radically different directions. He is still a young man, looking forward to the day when his five-month old son will play for Star. And he somehow manages to articulate the randomness and strangeness of being a Belfast teenager in 1969.

“There was no one in Belfast at that time who didn’t come close to getting involved. It would have been practically impossible to live in working class districts without being approached or getting directly involved. I . . . always feel that they were probably the unlucky ones rather than the preconceived master plan to become heroes of their various groups. I don’t think there was anything intrinsically evil about the guys who got involved or basically very good about the guys who didn’t. I would think it was bad luck yeah considering the situation in Ireland at the moment. Certainly, there for the grace of God go I, really.”

West End Musical

Star of the Sea persevered through the Troubles. After Dr Conlon died in 1994, Bill Cotter and the others kept it going but the era of the boys' clubs had begun to wane. The committee met with Ben Elton and Andrew Lloyd Webber in the late 1990s to hear a proposal for a West End musical based on the football team. They declined the offer because the feeling was the story would revolve around the fate of Sands. The Beautiful Game debuted in 2000 and featured an imagined football story set on the Falls Road. Bill McCotter accepted an invitation to see it and was content they had made the right decision.

“While Bobby was a member of the team and a lovely young fella and played for us, it was not the full story of Star. There was so much good that came out of that club.”

In a way, the point of Star was not that their fabulous, integrated junior team had been ruined by the Troubles. It was the nameless hundreds who the same experience might have helped through. The Boys Club officially closed in 2003 but the Star of the Sea name has survived and flourished through the basketball wing of the operation, which has established itself as one of the top clubs in Irish basketball.

Most of the senior members, like Bill McCotter and Danny Fulton, started out by signing up for the club. Liam Conlon was honoured with an MBE and CBE for his civic work. It's clear that in his own gruff way, he was a miracle worker. There's a story still in circulation about one of the kids who turned up for training at Star.

“What foot do you kick with, son?” Conlon reportedly asked.

The reply can vary according to the storyteller.

“I’m Catholic.”

“I’m Protestant.”

“No, son,” Conlon replies with impatience. “I mean, are you left-footed or right footed.”

Transformation

Dessie Black, a Catholic, and Willie Caldwell, a Protestant, stand as enduring testimony to Conlon’s belief system. Both make regular visits home. Sometimes they are stunned by the transformation of their native city: the vibrancy, the confidence and liberty of the young, the opportunity.

“Guernsey is a lovely little island and it has been good to us both,” says Dessie. “But, yeah, Belfast is where my heart is. And I just look around with pride.”

Raymond McCord’s final memory of Star is an odd one. Some lost afternoon, into the 1970s. He was an apprentice welder and was recruited by Harland and Wolff football team one season and ended up playing against Star in an amateur league match. He found the experience completely disorienting: to be playing against those colours didn’t make sense. At one stage, he forgot himself and yelled “C’mon Star,” drawing quizzical looks from his team-mates.

There was a bit of a crowd at the game and afterwards, a priest approached McCord. The priest told him he remembered him from that team: that Star had played against a group he had coached in Larne. They were some team, the priest said. The two stood chatting in the cold outside the dressing room for a few minutes. And for McCord the priest was a connection to a brilliant time now irretrievably past. When he walked inside he saw a team of faces looking at him with a combination of suspicion and wonder.

“Bear in mind, several of these boys were Loyalists . . . including the manager,” he says now with a laugh.

“How do you know that priest?” one of his H&W team mates asked.

McCord was still caught in the torrent of voices and moments – the cup finals, the bus journeys, the sing-songs, the nights out with and the thrilling feeling of belonging to a group of boys who believed they could beat all-comers, forever. He looked at the faces and knew there was no point in trying to explain.

“All I could think of saying was: ‘He’s an old friend’.”

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a sports writer with The Irish Times