Having finally broken the Kilcoo stronghold in Mourne, Burren’s Conaill McGovern tells Ball-X how good it feels to have the Magpie off the back, as his side prepare to go into battle against Scotstown!!!
“Our character was questioned, and at times that got personal. So, to be able to shake that means absolutely everything” – Conaill McGovern
October 2018 will be a month that Conaill McGovern remembers for quite some time one would think – well, maybe the first couple of weeks anyway.
Having turned thirty at the start of the month, the Burren man was handed an early present just prior to the big day, when a dominant second half display – and the introduction of Eamon Toner – resulted in a victory over arch rivals Mayobridge in the semi final of the Down Senior Football Championship.
They were the socks. Nice socks, don’t get me wrong, but socks nevertheless.
He may have had to wait awhile for it, but the present he really wanted arrived a week and a half later – and he couldn’t have been more pleased!
Yes, no matter what day of the year you were born, Sunday, October 14th, must have felt like a birthday for everyone who packed into the famous Social Club bar as the St Mary’s welcomed “home” a wandering friend.
Not since 2011, had the Frank O’Hare Cup taken residence in the Carrogs Road trophy cabinet, but the belief amongst, what is essentially, a new group of players to represent the famous green and white, might mean Frankie could well have to get used to the surroundings.
Speaking to McGovern a week on from the 2-12 to 2-09 victory over seven-in-a-row chasing Kilcoo, you don’t have to strain your ears too hard to hear the excitement in his voice. You can almost hear the mouth cracking into a smile. The fact that they had just clinched the Division One league title, no doubt spurring him on.
“It goes without saying – any team that wins six county championships in a row have been great champions. They had to come through ourselves in five of those victories, which for us has been a very bitter pill to swallow, as you can imagine. If anything, it’s gotten harder and harder since 2011 (Burren’s last Championship success) to take the defeats. Our character was questioned, and at times that got personal. So, to be able to shake that monkey off the back means absolutely everything”.
The significance of finally overcoming the Magpies, in a year when the Eoghan Rua club were chasing an unprecedented seventh Mourne crown in a row, should not be lost on anybody. Conaill and his teammates might not have been thinking too much about the record in the run up to the game, but they wouldn’t have had to travel too far to find a few men that may well have been.
Fathers, uncles, underage mentors – even the man donning the Banisteior bib in Pairc Esler a fortnight ago – helped an all-conquering St Mary’s side to a superb six, between ’83 and ’88, as the names O’Rourke, Murdock, McKernan and McGovern – and a few others it has to be said – became household names across Ulster. Only failing to capture the provincial title in ’86 when Castleblayney Faughs beat them in the final, that team brought the Holy Grail of an All-Ireland Senior Club Football Championship to the parish in the early part of that year, as ’85 Ulster Champions. They enjoyed it so much, they signed off the era by repeating the trick in the ’88-’89 campaign.
Despite Conaill’s insistence that it wasn’t mentioned once in the run up to the Kilcoo game, the club’s rich history is never far from any Burren man’s mind.
“We have huge respect for those Burren teams of the past. You know, all of us have been raised on those stories. Some people might think it a burden, but we’ve only ever been proud of what our fathers and uncles have achieved. But to tell you the truth, it counts for very little when it comes to talking about us. We have our own history to write and that starts with winning a Down Senior Championship and seeing where that takes us”.
“We have our own history to write” – Conaill McGovern
Whilst, perhaps, having only fledged, it would take a brave man to bet against this particular side doing just that. Blessed with an abundance of youthful talent to compliment the now veteran influences of the Kevin McKernan’s, the Dan McCartan’s and the Declan Rooney’s, Burren will pose a serious proposition to any pretenders, now that the crown has been wrestled back. Albeit, Conaill is quick to point out that talent only gets you so far.
“People ask us what the difference this year was and it’s an easy one to answer. The introduction of those young lads to our squad, and the difference it’s made, has been nothing short of phenomenal. They are pure winners – the likes of Ardan McEvoy, who was a rock against Kilcoo, Mal McAvoy, Liam Kerr – from u-12’s they’ve basically cleaned up, taking everything in their sight. That winning mentality gave us older boys a new lease of life. It’s made this year so enjoyable.”
The wing-back also points to that priceless commodity in any winning side, as an ingredient in this year’s success.
“We never say die. The county final was a microcosm of our championship run in general. We were behind against Castlewellan early on in the quarters. The semi-final against the ‘Bridge was a seriously tight affair and we maybe caught them on the hop with a couple of quick goals after half-time, and then conceding those two goals in the final. In years gone by, we might have folded, but this year we have a real steel. We never let our heads drop and we chipped away. Of course, Donal(O’Hare) had a great game, and having players of county calibre in Shay (McArdle) and Conor Toner to call from your bench, is a luxury we’re lucky to have”.
It’s a luxury that they may well have to make the very most of, in what looks a red-hot race for the Ulster Senior Club Championship this year. Drawn to play the winners of the preliminary round tie between Scotstown and Derrygonnelly, the former Down star was impressed by the efficiency of the Monaghan side in disposing of the Fermanagh champions, but holds no fear heading into Sunday’s provincial quarter-final.
“We’ve an idea what they bring to the table. They’re four-in-a-row winners in Monaghan, they’ve a raft of county players who all showed up well against Derrygonnelly, and our management team will no doubt come up with ways to try curtail their strengths. But the shackles are off for us, and that sense of freedom is unbelievable. I haven’t looked forward to a game of football as much in so long. Being in Newry we hope will be an advantage for us, it certainly was on our run to the final in 2010 and, whilst there’s only a few of us still knocking about with the experience of 2010 and 2011, and playing Ulster Club Championship, these young lads have won an Ulster Minor title in 2016, so that big game experience runs right through our squad”.
Having impressed throughout the championship campaign, it has been easy to see why McGovern’s self-imposed absence from inter-county affairs last year, was such a big disappointment to many in Down. But, with a new management team on board, and with that elusive third county medal in his back pocket, is now the time to make a return to the red and black?
“In all honesty, I haven’t really thought about it. I chose to give things a miss last year more so to do with a busy schedule ore than anything else. I was getting married in December and a lot of the other boys had picked the back end of 2017 and the summer of 2018 to tie the knot, so I felt it was important I got to enjoy all that come with that. It wasn’t an easy decision to step away from playing county football. As a Gaelic Footballer, the colours you want to play in above all else are that of your county. It’s not something I’ve had to deal with, and if the call comes from the new management team, then it’s something I’d have to consider. But until then, there’s no point worrying about it”.
He doesn’t seem to be worrying about much at all, does he?