Emyvale find themselves in familiar territory this weekend, standing on the brink of making their third Ulster Junior Football Final in nine years. Aodh Rua of Donegal stand in their way, and they’re all half-back Greg Devlin is concerning himself with for the minute.
When it comes to the Ulster Junior Championship, there isn’t much that the men from Emyvale have to learn.
Winners of the competition in 2009, and doubling up in 2013, the Monaghan club will have to bear an expectation of favouritism in their bid to claim a third crown in 2018. Most would see that as a just tag. The bookies certainly do.
Indeed, in the seventeen previous editions of the provincial competition, representatives from the Farney County have contested all but four finals.
Having rallied to see off Tyrone champions Newtownstewart St. Eugene’s in last month’s quarter-final, and racking up an impressive 5-13 in beating Cavan’s Drumlane, in the earlier preliminary, the Scarnageeragh side will travel to Omagh on Sunday afternoon, to meet Red Hugh’s, in the first of two Junior semi-finals to throw-in at Healy Park.
Strongly fancied they may be, but wing half-back Greg Devlin isn’t buying it just yet. The 29 year-old, a veteran of the ’09 and ’13 triumphs, believes that to come to that conclusion based on history alone, is a fool’s game.
“Like any rural club, we’ve suffered terribly at the hands of emigration” – Greg Devlin
“No, I’m not having that. The turnover of players we’ve had over the past five years, it’s a case of comparing apples to oranges. Yes, we still have a handful of lads on board that tasted success in 2009 and 2013, but like any rural club, we’ve suffered terribly at the hands of emigration.”
A fair point, well made. But there’s no arguing with the pedigree that most Monaghan Junior Champions have brought to the competition in the past, even if it’s a brand new adventure for the crux of their panel.
“Junior Football in Monaghan, maybe, is a bit of a break from the norm. I think there’s no getting away from the fact that we were very disappointed to lose our Intermediate status last year, but in honesty, the difference in quality between the teams playing Intermediate and Junior football in the county barely exists. We sat down, like every club does at the start of the year, to set out our goals, and when talk turned to championship, it was by no means a given that we were going to come out the other end”.
They did it the hard way, having to overcome big names like Clones and Drumahown in the early rounds before setting up a showpiece final with another old friend of the Ulster Junior Championship, in Cremartin.
But despite a stuttering period in the league, that saw Emyvale drop points to Clones, Oram and their championship final rivals, Declan Loughman’s side have, to this point, been assured in each of their knock-out ties.
In Loughman, the village side have the services of a giant of Monaghan football. A true legend in the Farney, Loughman starred in Monaghan sides throughout the eighties and acquired a staggering twelve Senior Championship medals with Castleblayney Faughs as a player. And his influence on proceedings this year, is certainly not underestimated by Greg.
“We’d managed a great coup in bringing Declan and his backroom team to Emyvale” – Greg Devlin
“The air of optimism that was created before a ball was even kicked was unbelivebale. I think there was a real sense that we’d managed a great coup in bringing Declan and his backroom team to Emyvale. What those men don’t know about football, is obviously not worth knowing. We knew if we could meet him halfway as a panel, in terms of effort and commitment, then the potential for good things was there. But undoubtedly a lot of our success this year has been down to that man”.
The sales and marketing manager credits Loughman with transforming the team, with developing the clubs youngsters at a serious rate of knots, and instilling the belief in those talented, but raw members of the side, that they were able to mix it with the big boys.
Communication has been a big part of things. Having attained their goal of capturing the county title, and in doing so, earning promotion back to Intermediate football, Loughman left it up to the players to decide how they wanted to treat the Ulster Championship series.
“A few days after the Cremartin game, we got together and he put it to us. What did we want to do in regards to Ulster? From experience, I knew it would mean back to training in the dark and the cold, until God knows when. We could have decided that we’d got what we came for and put the feet up and wait for Christmas. But we wanted to go hammer and tongs for the Ulster Championship. Success would be a huge lift for the community. We suffered a terribly tragic death in the parish last year, losing one of our best pals, and he’s definitely been close in our heads and hearts over the year, spurring us on. Perhaps, he wasn’t too far away that night!”
Whilst Devlin admits that another Ulster title, and avenging All-Ireland semi final defeats in both ’09 and ’13 is the ultimate aim, he insists focus is very much on the job at hand, for the moment.
“The thing about the Ulster Championship at this level, is that you are walking into the unknown, quite literally. I can’t pretend to know a great deal about Red Hugh’s and I’m sure they’re in the same boat when trying to get a spin on ourselves. All we can do is prepare well, and keep the intensity high in training. The matches have come thick and fast for us this last while, which has to be a good thing, and we’ll go into Sunday, in the hope that we’ll be the best team on the day”.
It’s true, Red Hugh’s probably aren’t experts on the Monaghan men, but they will have done well to escape the All-Star nominated footballer at the heart of their side.
Ryan McAnespie’s impressive season continues with his club side after what was a standout year with the county. The 23 year-old can perhaps count himself unlucky not to have picked up an All-Star during the week, having been nominated alongside county-teammates Conor McManus, Karl O’Connell and Rory Beggan, who all ended up making it on to 2018’s elite fifteen.
He’s an asset that Greg and co. are, of course, very appreciative of.
“Well what can you say about the man, that people don’t already know. He’s a fantastic footballer, a player that does all his talking on the pitch. A sort of silent assassin – he takes absolutely no prisoners, and if it wasn’t for how good he was, you’d hardly notice he was there. That changes when you get him on a night out, though!”
But to focus solely on McAnespie would be to the injustice of what looks a side capable of scoring at will. The tallies accumulated by David McAllister at midfield and Daniel McMahon in the inside forward line will raise some Donegal eyebrows in the lead up to Sunday, however, Emyvale will be sweating on the fitness of the former, who picked up a knock in last weekend’s league semi-final defeat to Clones.
Emyvale know all about going to the well. They may as well own the well at this stage. But the big question come Sunday, will be the temperament of those young apples, and whether or not some of the more dated oranges, can guide them to the water.