Naomh Eanna, Antrim IFC Champions 2018

High Times at Hightown

A week on from creating history, Naomh Éanna’s Intermediate Championship winning captain, James McAuley, insists focus has switched very much to the Ulster series!!!

“To finally get over the line, there was as much relief as there was pride” – James McAuley

One clammy Sunday afternoon, about three or four years ago, far too warm for early April, I rolled off the M2 in search of St. Enda’s GAA club, Glengormley.

Eventually finding it, I pulled through the gate and drove up the incline toward the clubhouse cut at the top of the brow, parked up and wound down the passenger window to my left. In the car next door were two or three teammates. They looked at me with the same stupid smile that I threw back at them. Nods of the head were exchanged. We were all dying.

The game itself is more or less a blur. Needless to say we were slaughtered in what was less of a bloodbath than it was a sweatbath. But one thing we all commented on, picking over the bones in the changing room afterwards, was how young our opponents were. There was a strong suspicion that we may have just been beaten by the North Belfast club’s minor side.

James McAuley probably doesn’t remember much about the visit of Dromara in a pre-season challenge, prior to their 2015 campaign. Out of self-respect, I wasn’t going to remind him. Chances are, he was indeed, one of those fresh faced flying machines that zoomed around us in the Easter sunshine. But that was then, and this is now.

Last weekend, those boys, now men, permanently etched themselves into history, as the first Naomh Éanna side to capture an Antrim Football Championship at any level, when they proved too strong for Gort na Mona, in the Intermediate Final, at Corrigan Park.

It’s a reality that still quite hasn’t sunk in yet for their captain.

“Looking back to the moment that final whistle went last week, everything still seems quite surreal. We’d been trying to win the Intermediate Championship, probably for the last three years or so, and I suppose, to finally get over the line, there was as much relief as there was pride. It’s the first football championship in the club’s history, and there’s so many people involved at Naomh Éanna that this means the absolute world to”.

With an average squad age of 22, McAuley acknowledges that this is a special bunch of young men that he’s leading, but he’s quick to point out that whilst most of them may be in their early twenties, they certainly aren’t wet behind the ears from a footballing perspective.

“Even though we’re perceived as a young team, there’s experience running right through our squad. You know, starting from the top. We have Frank (Fitzsimmons) and Pat (Hughes) taking us. As far as Antrim football goes, there’s few with more experience than those two men. They brought Thomas McNulty in with them who has taken a lot of our boys since they were playing U12s, which has been a big help. There’s a couple of older lads still knocking about who’ve played across the divisions for us and having them there has been invaluable for the younger lads coming through. But even amongst the younger boys themselves, we have lads who have played county football at all levels and lads who have won All-Ireland schools titles, so there’s a great balance. It’s brilliant to be a part of”.

Antrim IFC 2018, Naomh Eanna Management and Captain
McAuley has put much of this years success down to the management team of Frank Fitzsimmons, Pat Hughes and Thomas McNulty. Credit: Naomh Eanna CLG

A central factor in bringing silverware to the Hightown Road, in 2018, has been a return to Division One football. The ‘black and ambers’ secured their top flight status for next year in the weeks leading up to their meeting with Gort na Mona, and the momentum from those wins, the centre-half back believes, has proved invaluable.

“Playing Division One this year was a big step up for a lot of our lads and probably the highest level of football that some of them had played at. Being the only side in the Intermediate Championship to be playing Division One football probably did give us a bit of an advantage, because its an intensity and physicality that we’ve grown accustom to over the season. And we’ve stepped up to it. By the time the championship came round, we were more or less safe which took the pressure off us a bit. We had some big results that gave us a lot of belief too. Beating Aghagallon in a tight affair at home at the back end of August, and even rattling four goals past St Teresa’s the week before the final certainly helped”.

Indeed, Naomh Éanna’s form has come at just the right time. An indifferent mid-season spell that saw the Glengormley lads lose six out of seven has long dissipated and they go into this afternoon’s league meeting with Rossa looking to make it eight wins in a row. It’s a spate of form that McAuley is hoping can continue, as they prepare to welcome Monaghan Intermediate Champions, Doohamlet, to Belfast next weekend.

“Division One is so competitive that even being on the end of one or two wrong results can have you right back in the mire, but thankfully after that wobble we were able to get back on track. We’ve done a serious amount of work to get to where we are, and we want to keep that winning habit going. Frank was quick to refocus us after last week’s win and make us aware of the opportunity that we had in front of us, and we don’t want to get into the Ulster Championship just to fall at the first hurdle. We’ll approach it the same way we approached the county championship – game by game – and see how we go. Doohamlet are a side who will be well organised and will have quality players throughout. We know Colin Walshe (Monaghan captain) is there obviously, but no team wins a championship in Monaghan without having that quality the length and breadth of the team”.

Whilst last week brought a great deal of joy to Hightown, those not around to witness, perhaps their greatest sporting moment, weren’t far from people’s minds. As The Troubles cascaded this part of the world into darkness and turmoil, the club was labelled the most terrorised sports club in Northern Ireland, after five of it’s members were brutally killed in twenty one years, between the early eighties and early noughties. As well as the cold blooded murders, came bombings and arson; arsons a plenty. McAuley, despite only being 22 himself, is sensitive to just how much their victory last weekend meant to some.

“The past is something I know we are conscious of, every time we pull on the jersey” – James McAuley

“St. Enda’s has had a very troubled and tragic past and I think it’s important for our lads to be aware of the club’s history. It’s something that I know we are conscious of, every time we pull on the jersey. I think the best thing we can do is bring as much silverware as we can back up the Hightown Road. The reality is, that as much as we might think we know, we have no idea what it must mean to the older members that had to continually pick themselves and the club off the floor in those days. Thankfully, we are in a much better place now. We are in the privileged position of having great new facilities, that has allowed the club to place itself right at the centre of the North Belfast community.  We have had a big drive over the last few years to promote the Irish language at the club, and to see so many of the juveniles speaking it amongst themselves on a football field is just great. We are trying to cement a legacy that we can all be proud of”.

The footballers will travel the few miles across Belfast, back to Corrigan Park, to try to add another few moments to that legacy, next Sunday afternoon. But win or lose, this young group of men have taken steps over the last few years to walk their club from darkness towards the light. A light, by all accounts, that could certainly get a whole lot brighter in time.

 

 

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