After more than a decade amongst Derry’s football elite, Banagher were relegated to Division 2 last season. But, as Gavin O’Neill tells Ball-X, every cloud has a silver lining!!!
One could imagine, it hasn’t been easy being a Banagher Gael, for the most part.
Respected as one of the top dual clubs in the province, a place where household Derry names such as Brian Óg McGilligan, Mark Lynch and the Rolls-Royce that was Sean Martin Lockhart, made their names, a brief look at the club’s roll of honour might make for some surprising reading for the ignorant.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with the great and the good over both codes for so many years, now, in the North-West, three Senior Hurling Championships are the only elite honours to find their way along the Feeny Road in their 53 year history.
A smattering of intermediate hurling championships, yes. A county junior football crown in the previous guise of St Joseph’s 66 years ago, indeed. But more striking, perhaps, the ill-fortune that has plagued the club when big days have come around. Beaten Senior Football finalists in ’74, ’78 and ’81, it’s perhaps more galling to count the amount of near-misses there has been in the hurling. Beaten in ten senior finals to date, not to mention, each of the last three.
It’s football that has been Gavin O’Neill’s one big love, up there in Mid-Derry. Breaking onto the senior panel ten years ago as a fresh-faced teenager, the former St Pat’s Maghera colleges player, had never experienced a game outside Division One until being relegated from the top-flight at the end of last season.
“To get relegated last season was a huge disappointment. Dropping into Division 2 meant playing in the Intermediate Championship, and I suppose we came down with big expectations to do well. We set goals in place at the start of the year, and one was to get back into Senior Football at the first time of asking. But an opportunity was handed to us to go and write some history. It’s been 66 years since Banagher won a Junior title, so to win the Intermediate Championship this year was a fantastic achievement. The first in our history – and to get promoted as well made for a good year all round.”
Any notions of a cake ride to an Intermediate crown were put to bed early doors, when the maroon and whites drew fierce local rivals, and equally fancied, Foreglen in the first round. It took a replay to overcome their close neighbours, but after more straight forward victories against Faughanvale and Steelstown, the Sperrin side put in an assured performance against Ballymaguigan in the final, prevailing by four points.
Whilst other clubs have maybe welcomed a tailing off in competitive fixtures in the run into an Ulster Championship campaign, the St. Mary’s have enjoyed the nature of games coming thick and fast. Drawn in the preliminary round against Belnaleck Art McMurrough’s, who progressed out of Fermanagh, the club were also forced to tackle a promotion play-off with Newbridge, after a change in the Derry league structure meant, that despite finishing top of Division Two, they would not be automatically permitted back into Senior Football. It’s something that Gavin and his teammates are quite accustom to.
“We are very proud of being a dual club…but it’s a lot to ask of such a small group of players” – Gavin O’Neill
“We are very proud of being a dual club, but I suppose logistically, we probably have to deal with struggles that the majority of sides don’t have to worry about. You know, we’re a small, rural outfit, with fourteen or fifteen lads who play for both codes, you might have nine or ten of them as starters for both teams, with both leagues running side by side during the year. It’s tough going. It takes a lot of communication between management teams to keep lads fresh. I suppose you look at Slaughtneil and they have it down to a fine art, but it’s a lot to ask of such a small group of players, no doubt.”
Success came from both the Newbridge and Belnaleck ties, and with promotion well and truly secured, focus is solely on one thing at Fr McNally Park, for a change. Sunday afternoon’s encounter at Mac Cuamhaill Park, Ballybofey, where the Banagher men will go up against Glenfin of Donegal in the Ulster Intermediate Quarter-Final.
Gavin admits to not knowing too much about the Cloghan contingent, but he rests assured that he knows two boys that will.
“Look, when you have a management team like ours, you leave it up to them boys – they’ve been around the block a fair few times and by the time the ball’s thrown in on Sunday, Enda (Muldoon) and Honda (Declan Mullan) will have their homework done. We know that Glenfin overcame Ballyshannon, who were hot favourites, in the Donegal final, so their tails will be up. And look, there aren’t too many poor teams win Donegal championships, no matter the level, so we know we’ll be in for a big game”.
Glenfin, who boast former Footballer of the Year nominee Frank McGlynn amongst their ranks, got the better of Aodh Ruadh in a low-scoring final to lift their county championship, thanks largely, on the day, to the free-taking of Gerard Ward.
The Paul Cartin marshalled defence will be wary of that come Sunday, but in the shape of their own lauded talisman, Mark Lynch, they have a natural born game-winner.
“It’s great to play with Mark. He’s been a stalwart of Derry and Banagher for, God knows how many, years. He’s the leader in our team, he’s the man that everybody still looks up to, and he’s a big inspiration for the younger lads. His communication skills and his desire to improve are phenomenal and he seems to get the best out of everyone else around him. But, he’d be the first to tell you, it’s by no means a one man show. You’ve the likes of Paul Cartin, the McCloskeys, Brian Óg, Peter Hagan, Conor Feeney, Tiarnan Moore, the list goes on. Over the years, Mark has taken the brunt of responsibility. But this year, men have stepped up and we aren’t just as reliant on him. He’s still the main asset of our side, but it’s that distribution of responsibility that has led to our success this year, I feel.”
“It’s the distribution of responsibility that has led to our success this year” – Gavin O’Neill
The 27 year-old sales manager has admitted that it’s been an honour to represent Derry in the Ulster competition to this point, but that the feel good factor around the club has been the biggest factor in spurring him on.
“When it comes to Ulster, we are in totally brand new territory. I suppose we are still riding the wave of winning the county title and the reaction we’ve got from the supporters and people in the parish has been just unreal. Just to be a part of that, and to see the excitement in the kids up at the field is great, and look, we’ll do that same old, same old and take each obstacle as it comes. If that results in an Ulster title, that would be first class, but like I say, we’re just enjoying the moment”.
Down playing it a bit, he may well be. Banagher will go into Sunday’s Quarter-Final as favourites to progress. And with a certain Mr Muldoon orchestrating things from the sideline, I know where my money will be going.