BACK in my minor playing days, when the age grade was under 18 – which should never have changed – I was very lucky to be involved in a successful Killeavy team that won two championships in a row. We had a great crop of players that played together from U10 level, up through all the grades and minor level for some, was certainly the pinnacle of their careers.
What I loved about playing in those years, was having the opportunity to showcase our skills against the winners of the other Ulster counties, by playing in the St Paul’s minor football tournament on the Shaws Road. I still have fond memories of the games that we played in this tournament and some of the players we played against with Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ blasting out in our dressing room.
In our first year playing in this tournament, we were beaten by Loup after a replay at the semi-final stage and they went on to win the final. About six years later, they added a senior title to their minor success. Both teams were very evenly matched, they had Johnnie McBride and Paul McFlynn as their stand-out players and Barry Duffy was one of our big names at the time.
The following year, we reached the New Year’s Day decider. We faced off against Ballinderry this time, and unfortunately fell short again. They went onto even greater heights by winning the All-Ireland senior club title a few years later. When you’ve played against these guys in that particular tournament, it’s the first point of conversation when you meet them again. Each player fortunate enough to play in this brilliant tournament will no doubt have similar memories than mine.
The thought of training over Christmas time, to prepare yourself for an Ulster semi-final or a final is such a special feeling. Bus loads of supporters from Killeavy used to make the journey up the motorway, with their Christmas and New Year hangovers, ready to cheer us on. It was brilliant to experience that at such a young age.
Unfortunately, that group of players didn’t kick on and we never got the chance to experience the provincial scene at senior level. But for new teams like Clann Éireann and Glen playing in the competition for the first time, they must be enjoying every single moment that they are living in right now. Representing your club and taking it to levels like this brings the whole community together and creates such a brilliant buzz.
It was encouraging to see both newcomers over the weekend win their first round games, as it keeps the high and the momentum from their county final wins going, but they will know that tougher games lie ahead. It also offers other teams that are not too far off winning county titles of a glimmer of hope, that what can be achieved with a good attitude, and a bit of belief.
Kilcoo and Derrygonnelly also had impressive victories and as seasoned teams on the provincial stage, it will take all of what Clann Éireann and Glen have to overcome them. All four teams are more than capable of winning the Ulster title and when you play football in winter conditions with heavier pitches, it makes it more of a level playing field.
Glen are a very impressive side and they came through the Derry championship quite comfortably. Probably more comfortably than any team has done in a while and eventually the four minor titles that these guys won in succession on the Shaws Road were going to pay dividends and they are now reaping the rewards of that underage success. On top of that, they have one of the game’s most astute managers in Malachy O’Rourke, and he has been pivotal along with his backroom team in guiding the Glen team to where they are at now.
Tommy Coleman has had the same impact on Clann Éireann. They are a team full of very talented footballers but playing with an attitude and desire that they will never ever throw in the towel. We saw this in the final moments of their county final victory and we witnessed it again at the weekend when Tiernan Kelly kicked a monstrous free over the bar to level the game and bring it to extra-time. It’s okay having the ability to kick frees like that on the training pitch, but to have the mental capacity to do it when your team needs it most is not the easiest thing to have in your locker. They have it in abundance and there is no doubting that Tommy Coleman’s attitude, filters right through his players. I’m looking forward to two big semi-finals and the beauty of Ulster football is that anything really can happen.