Birmingham City and Aston Villa academy stars team up to end 45-year wait

Aston Villa and Birmingham City academy products Rory and Ronan Hale combined to help Cliftonville lift their first Irish Cup in 45 years at Windsor Park on Saturday. The Reds beat Belfast rivals Linfield 3-1 in the final in a tie that required extra-time to separate the two sides – and a 30-minute spell in which former Blues striker Ronan scored a brace, including an excellent goal when he came in from the left and found the far corner from distance.

Ronan developed a reputation during his time at Wast Hills as a free-scoring striker but never broke into the Blues’ first team after joining the club from Crusaders in 2016. After a short loan spell with Derry City , left St Andrew’s in January 2019. and returned to Belfast with the Crue. He made the switch to Solitude with Cliftonville in 2022 after spells with Larne and St Pat’s and continued to find the net regularly.

Rory, meanwhile, was at Villa during the same period that Ronan spent time at the Blues academy; returned to Ireland in 2017, initially with Galway United and then with Derry and also the Crusaders. He moved to Cliftonville ahead of his younger brother in 2021. While Ronan may have grabbed the headlines with his winning goals, Rory was awarded man of the match and produced an assist for Sam Ashford’s equalizer in the beginning of the game.

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“It’s brilliant! An amazing day, an amazing performance, fair play to everyone, it was a change,” said the centre-half after lifting the trophy. “We knew it was going to be a tough game, we were underdogs, but we knew it was going to be a good game plan from Jim (Magilton, manager) and it paid off. I knew I had to do a lap, that’s my game. Then the quality of the ball comes second.

Rory paid tribute to Ronan after the final – his younger brother was linked with a return to England with Derby County, Portsmouth, Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers in the January transfer window and his team-mates spoke of his chances of breaking through English football. after his experience with the Blues.

“I think the players have moved across the water doing less than he did the last couple of seasons,” Hale said. “He’s had the opportunity to leave Larne to come to Cliftonville and play week in week out and enjoy his football. I think he’s scored 55 goals in two seasons which is outstanding, absolutely outstanding and he’s played on the left side last season. He missed the first few months of this season and still scored over 20 goals.

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