FANATICAL football fan, Kaelan Northey, was thrust into the sporting spotlight this week when returning from the 13th Special Olympics World Summer Games with a gold medal following an heroic performance in the 5-a-side football final in Athens.
SIMON COLLINS reports
The 18-year-old Foyle Strikers member played a leading role as Team Ireland’s five a-side football team secured Olympic gold following a dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over Cyprus in the final last Saturday - a first for an Irish Special Olympic football in more than 30 years!
Kaelan was the sole athlete from Derry to participate at the Games in the iconic Panathenaic Stadium and he insists it was the ‘best feeling in the world’ to return home with his gold medal proudly draped around his neck.
The Carnhill teenager was among the 126 athletes and 49 coaches of Team Ireland who returned to Dublin Airport with an impressive cache of 107 medals and dozens of place ribbons in 12 different sports.
Chants of “Ireland, Ireland” from around 800 people greeted the Irish team on Tuesday afternoon and the celebrations continued at Kaelan’s Carnhill home until late that night.
It was an “opportunity of a lifetime” for the local lad and his vital contribution in the final was even more remarkable considering he began the match as goalkeeper, only to emerge outfield and score an outstanding goal before finding the net once again from the spot in the shoot-out on day six of the Games.
Team Ireland were leading for most of the first half with a stunning goal from Kaelan, only to be disappointed when the Cypriots equalised at the end of the half. Neither side could find the vital breakthrough and the game went to extra-time.
When extra-time ended the match was decided after a heart-stopping period of ‘sudden death’ penalties during which Team Ireland goalkeeper, Mark Whelan, settled matters in Ireland’s favour.
Kaelan has already tasted gold medal success at last year’s All-Ireland Limerick Games but it paled into insignificance following his latest heroics in Greece. And he feels all the hard work put in preparation was well worth the sacrifice.
“I scored from outside the box and put the ball through the keeper’s legs, it was the best feeling in the world,” said the former Belmont House pupil. “It was hard to play in the heat, but it was some craic.
“I put in a lot of hard work going up and down to Dublin for training but it’s all been worth it bringing back a gold medal. It might be worth a lot of money but I’m not going to put it on ‘eBay,’ so don’t worry,” he laughed.
“When we got back to Dublin on Tuesday everybody was shouting ‘Ireland, Ireland’ and “Ole, Ole Ole - it was a great feeling. I met a couple of good friends over there so it was a great experience.”
A keen Derry City and Tottenham Hotspurs supporter, Kaelan will take a well earned break tonight when watching his beloved ‘Candy Stripes’ take on Shamrock Rovers and he’s looking forward to returning to the field himself when the season resumes in September.
“I’ll go back to the ‘Tech’ in September and then the football season starts up again so I’m looking forward to getting back playing.”
Thankful for Support
While his mother, Bernie and father, David, were unable to make the trip to the Greek capital to watch their son in action, they kept a close eye on proceedings online.
And the proud parents were extremely thankful to Foyle Strikers and Team Ireland coach, Declan O’Neill, who claimed a silver medal having guided the 11 a-side squad to the final where they lost out to Great Britain.
“We couldn’t get over to Athens to see him due to unforeseen circumstances, but we were able to phone Kaelan and see how he was doing on the website that they had set up,” said Bernie.
“He got back on Tuesday and they had a welcoming party and celebrations in Dublin and he didn’t get back to Derry until about 7.00 p.m. so he was exhausted but we had a bit of a party for him when he got back.
“We’re all absolutely ecstatic,” she continued. “It was a powerful opportunity for him to meet people and it was the first time he’s been away on his own but to represent Ireland in the Special Olympics and to bring back a gold medal is a dream come true for him.
“It was an amazing experience and he got to meet people from different countries. He was always into football, he’s supported Derry City from no age and is also a mad Spurs fan. He’s just turning 19 so this experience will give him loads of confidence.
“I can’t speak highly enough of Declan O’Neill, his coach from school and Foyle Strikers. He always encouraged him to play football. There’s a lot of different people helping out voluntary lending support. We are so thankful to Declan and all the coaches and volunteers who have helped Kaelan along the way.”