If anyone doubted the pulling power of schoolboy football, all one had to do was turn up at Sabina Park last Saturday for the LIME Super Cup final between Jamaica College and Holy Trinity. The ground was packed. The excitement and emotion inside and outside the park could pass for a crucial World Cup qualifier. Hundreds of people couldn't even get in.
The LIME Super Cup is a brilliant idea. Pitting rural and urban schools together in a win-or-go-home format was always going to be a good idea. That, in and of itself, was something that whetted the appetite of the average football fan. What has set the LIME Super Cup apart, however, is the whole razzmatazz associated with it. The venues were first class, the entertainment package was good, and the footballers, probably inspired by the aura, as much as by the million-dollar payday, seemed to pull out all the stops.
The tournament showed that Jamaica College is, without doubt, the most complete team in schoolboy football. The Hope Road side has been heavily criticised for overdoing recruiting - which principal Ruel Reid admitted to in Thursday's Gleaner - but those are just claims made by people who have an axe to grind.
Virtually, every school which has had any kind of run in school sports recruited heavily. They are not doing anything that every other school couldn't have done. Student athletes will gravitate towards schools with good coaches and good programmes, and it is therefore up to all coaches and all schools to have the kinds of programmes that will attract the best of our student athletes.
Holy Trinity showed that it is not always the 'big' schools that can display great results. They got to the final of the LIME Super Cup, playing an admirable brand of football, and would have gained a lot of fans along the way. Too many of our principals want good results on the field without wanting to go all the way to get in quality players with a quality structure.
The LIME Super Cup final saw JC putting on an exhibition against STETHS. It was a one-sided encounter. I was disappointed that it wasn't a closer contest, and it gave more ammunition to the view that urban schoolboy footballers are light years ahead of their rural counterparts. After all, the last time a 'country' school won the Olivier Shield outright was a decade ago. One view is that the Kingston schools have just mastered the art of recruiting, and those of that view point out that on this JC team, there are a number of rural-based players.
Another thought is that St George's College and Jamaica College have superior programmes, and therefore, superior teams. It is only these two teams that have won in the last seven years, and their brilliance might not necessarily reflect the standard of the Manning Cup on a whole.
One blot on schoolboy football this year, though, was those lopsided results in the games involving JC and Holy Trinity. Sixteen love and 12-0, at that stage of the competition, speak to either corruption or teams not trying hard enough. Either way, it doesn't look good.
What it should remind us of, though, is that winning schoolboy football titles is more important to coaches and schools than we might have originally thought. It's no longer a case of "it doesn't matter whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game." That's for teams that are not serious. Schoolboy football in Jamaica is taking on the same atmosphere as a bona fide club league. We saw where one high-profile coach was dismissed in the middle of the season. That was unheard of in my time as a schoolboy.
When I was at Manning's, schoolboy football was essentially about bragging rights. Now it's a whole lot more. Teams will pull out all the stops if they feel they have a chance. If it means scoring six goals in six minutes of stoppage time, or resting key players when your team still has a realistic chance of making a Manning Cup final because you have another big final to play, so be it.
One hopes the day will come when all this buzz about schoolboy football is given to our Premier League competitions. If we are serious about really developing our football to match the giants of CONCACAF, we must find a way to make all the stakeholders, sponsors, players and crowds get as worked up about our Premier League football as we are about schoolboy football. When schoolboy football is seen to be far bigger than our highest-tiered football, we will continue to struggle.
n Orville Higgins is a sports journalist and talk-show host at KLAS ESPN FM. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.