Swashbuckling, bright-eyed and brimming with confidence, Naomh Éanna captain James McAuley and semi-final hero Mickey Morgan, talk to Ball-X before tomorrow night’s Ulster Intermediate Final clash with Mullahoran.
Any visitor to Mullahoran, Gweedore or Scotstown over this past week will have done well to overlook the screaming colour palettes bedecking every home, road and bar in the parish. In Glengormley, however, things are a little more understated.
In fact, unless you were driving past the St.Enda’s club itself, you would be hard pressed to tell that anything of much note, was imminent in the busy North-Belfast townland. Two decades on from the signing of the Belfast Agreement, and support for the local GAA club, in Glengormley, and many other large towns and metropolitan suburbs across Northern Ireland, has to be tactful, has to be measured. A nod more to a shared political space, rather than any perceived lack of excitement.
For excitement certainly abounds, make no question about that. Contrary to the cutting breeze at the clubhouse on the Hightown Road, was the warm welcome Ball-X received when we landed at ten o’clock this morning. You couldn’t wipe the smile of secretary, Paul McKeown’s, face as he chirped away in the club bar, looking forward, like so many of the clubs “elders”, to the biggest night in their 62 year history.
The fevered anticipation surrounding the clash with Cavan Intermediate kingpins, Mullahoran Dreadnoughts, in tomorrow night’s Ulster Intermediate Club Football Final, is something that semi-final hero Mickey Morgan is enjoying.
“It means so much to the people here. Seeing all the kids making posters, making t-shirts. It’s brilliant to be involved in. There’s two supporters buses leaving from this car-park tomorrow afternoon to make it’s way to Armagh – people making a day of it. You know, through the week, the lads have been around the local schools. This is unheard of in this part of the world, and if you can’t enjoy it, then you’ll not enjoy anything”.
The 23 year-old electrician was the toast of the very same bar we sat in this morning, when his introduction, sparked (here all week!) a dramatic turnaround that saw Naomh Éanna overturn a two-point deficit late in the game against Tattyreagh. Morgan kicked the winning scores in injury time a fortnight ago, but is the first to acknowledge the eleven scores before his, in their 13 points to 1-08 victory.
One of the more crucial of those eleven, came from the right boot of the man sat alongside him. Captain James McAuley has shown leadership throughout the championship campaign that belies his tender 22 years, and it was he who hauled the sides level in the Athletic Grounds, before Morgan, “stole the show”. The skipper’s words – not mine!
The Queen’s University student strikes a composed demeanour, both on and off the field – a composure that he and his teammates had to call upon, in waiting on the throw-in to their semi-final. Scheduled as the second game of a two-part Intermediate double header, the St. Enda boys had to endure a forty-five minute delay to the commencement of their game, as Mullahoran and Banagher played out an epic on the Armagh sod. The Dreadnoughts eventually coming through after a hand-over-the-eyes free-kick competition.
“We watched the first-half and, and at half-time slipped down to our changing room to get limbered up. There was always the possibility of extra-time delaying the start of our game, but I don’t think any of us expected what unfolded. That’s where the experience of somebody like Frank Fitzsimmons (Manager), comes into it’s own. He told us to chill out, take ten minutes just to chat amongst ourselves, and it relaxed the whole situation”.
Any notion of being fazed was put to bed not long after the ball was thrown-in, as teenage corner-forward Eoin Nagle, swung over a beautiful right-footed effort in the first minute. And despite looking down and out to Joe Cartin’s goal, the Antrim side were able to rally late on to beat the Tyrone champions.
This group of young men certainly exude an infectious air of confidence, that is more than evident in their fearless brand of football.
“I think it’s important that we fancy ourselves everytime we go out to play”, explains the captain. “The Tattyreagh game was far from us at our best, we were probably at about a six out of ten level that night. But look, semi-finals are for winning and thankfully we are were we want to be. We haven’t had that eight or nine out of ten game yet, so hopefully we are building up to it this weekend”.
Forward Morgan agrees.
“For the Doohamlet game (quarter-final) there was a real sense amongst us that we weren’t going to lose that game. There probably was a mentality bordering on cockiness. We walked into Corrigan Park that day with that wee bit of arrogance, and we played some great football. We brought the same to Armagh that night, and it’s important. We are young. So we have to be mentally strong.”
It’s a mental strength that, perhaps, has been built in part, by disappointment in the past. Despite winning the prestigious Paul McGirr U-16 Tournament, most of this side have been on the wrong end of four consecutive (that’s FOUR consecutive!), Antrim U-21 final defeats. Having captured the Intermediate crown in a tight-fought match against Gort Na Mona at the start of October, the prodigious side sparkled at times against Doohamlet in the quarters before grinding out their semi-final win.
But in Mullahoran they will come face-to-face with a dogged opposition, who have had to negotiate extra-time in both their provincial run outs this Autumn.
Back-boned by Breffni county star, Killian Brady, in midfield, Seanie Smith’s side can draw on the experience of other influential figures such as key forward Enda O’Reilly, and the pivotal Philip Brady on the edge of the square. Banagher found goalkeeper Sean Briody, in superb form, two weeks ago, and he marshals a tenacious defensive unit that will look to quickly shut down space for the Belfast side’s talented forward division.
McAuley is in no doubt of the task in hand.
“One thing we can’t get away from is the unquestionable character Mullahoran have shown” – James McAuley
“We leave worrying about the ins-and-outs of individual players to management, but one thing we can’t get away from is the unquestionable character Mullahoran have shown throughout this Ulster campaign. To come through what they’ve come through is going to give them just as much confidence as we have.”
Last word goes to Morgan. Dubbed the ‘super sub’ by this publication and many others over the past couple of weeks, his outlook on, more than likely, starting the biggest game of his life on the line, tomorrow night, typifies the togetherness of a tightly knit squad.
“There’s no feeling of being disappointed whatsoever. I’ve played with these lads since we were kids, and I’m delighted to just be a part of things, like we all are. I’ve been working away for most of the year in London, and making games and training when I could. On a team as good as our own, you can’t just come back and think there’s going to be a place for you. Frank has pulled me aside and has explained to me the importance of every single member of our panel to me, and if I get the call tomorrow night, I know I’m coming on to do a job. We’re best mates here, and I’m as proud of them to be where we are as they are of me. So not being in the starting fifteen, it doesn’t bother me.”
Yes, things may be a bit understated in Glengormley this evening. But if there’s one thing the supporters of the yellow and black don’t suffer an aversion to, it’s excitement. And, why not? For this small club, perched high above Belfast on the side of a hill, has suffered by bomb and by bullet, more than most throughout their 62 year history. And win, lose or draw tomorrow night, James, Mickey and the senior footballers and management have ensured one thing, over this past two or three months. Happiness has, at last, made a home for itself at Hightown.
The Ball-X Verdict
In Naomh Éanna, Mullahoran will face a team, similar to that of the Banagher side they dug in so well to master in their semi-final. Key to their success that night, was funnelling players back to quell attacks and turn over possession, and with that possession, they launched early ball into the forward line, where Enda and Cormac O’Reilly caused any amount of headaches for the Derry side. However, they benefited from a few individual mistakes in that Banagher backline, that led to crucial scores. Most notably, Philip Brady’s first half-goal that pulled them back into the game, when it looked like Banagher might kick-on. They also failed to show much want for bringing the game to their opponents, despite playing all of the second-half, a man to the good.
We just don’t see Naomh Éanna making the same errors at the back. McAuley and full back Mick McNamee have proved man mountains for them in the wins over Doohamlet and Tattyreagh, and whilst falling foul to a bit of dozing at times in both those wins, and conceding more goals than they would like, the feeling would be that Mullahoran won’t get the same time and space afforded to them on the counter, as they did against the Sperrin side.
In attack, Naomh Éanna are nothing short of brilliant, with the Healy brothers, Ruairi Scott and Nagle, almost unplayable at times. However, should they claim victory tomorrow night, we envision that no small part will be played by key-man, Odhrán Eastwood. He may have fourteen on his back but he fulfils an all action role for Fitzsimmons that sees him operate more or less between the two 45’s, and has been instrumental to the swashbuckling style that the city side adopt. He’s also their designated free-taker, and rarely fails to produce a white flag.
We think it’ll be a tight one, all the same.
Verdict: Naomh Éanna to win (8/13, on offer with most bookies)
Value Bet: Naomh Éanna to win by 1-3 points (21/10, Boylesports)