Brendan McTaggart reports from Fr McGuigan Park, Ahoghill
It may not have been the classic contest we had hoped for and for the neutrals in attendance at Fr. McGuigan Park, it won’t last long in the memory. Will that matter to the men from Erin’s Own Cargin? You might get an answer by Tuesday once their done celebrating their eighth Antrim title and third in four years.
Nine scores in 60 plus minutes of football, admittedly is a poor return. For those purists who follow the game and those who made the journey up the Crosskeys Road to the picturesque setting in Clooney, they will all be practising their best Pat Spillane impressions. “Puke Football.”
But this was different. This was a rivalry between two teams who yes, are neighbours but they share the same Parish. The rivalry runs deep, deeper than possibly anything else in the county. Creggan have been in Cargin’s shadow for longer than they care to remember when it comes to football and Sunday was their chance to knock ‘big brother’ off his perch.
The atmosphere before throw in was electric. The patrons were treated to a feast beforehand, Dunloy and St Galls minors putting on an excellent final. A flowing 60 minutes that whetted the appetite. The crowd was already large, by the time the full time whistle blew, it was huge. They were expectant for more of the same but it was never going to be a classic. The tension and magnitude of the contest between these great rivals wouldn’t allow for free-flowing football.
To call the opening quarter cat and mouse would be a huge understatement, neither side showing their full hand while sizing each other up. A reluctance to go for the ‘Hollywood’ ball that would open the final up.
Michael Magill opened the scoring after just over a minute but his tussle with Ricky Johnston was one of the highlights of the game. Cargin tried to pick the target man out on a few occasions but it was a titanic tussle between the two adversaries.
An early goal chance for the Kickham’s was squandered when Matthew Rodgers shot was floated straight to the waiting arms of John McNabb in the Cargin goals. Creggan managed their first score of the final when Kevin Small split the posts in the 11th minute and when the Creggan forward judged the elements to perfection soon after to give the Kickhams the lead, it looked like the Staffrordstown Road side had finally settled into their first final in 41 years.
The Cargin reply was instant. Ciaran Bradley finishing a rare counter attack by the Erin’s Own side in the 20th minute as the wrestle for momentum and authority continued. Big hits, turnovers, packed defences but a hugely intense last 10 minutes followed. Neither side giving an inch and neither looking to change from what they hoped would be a winning formula.
The second half arrived and it was more of the same warfare. The elements had eased but what wind there was blew in the Kickham’s favour. Both teams were guilty of missed opportunities, Creggan more so. Cargin opened a two point lead for the first time in the match when Tomás McCann, he off semi-final last gasp goal fame, landed his first of the match and Bradley doubling his own tally. The pressure was heaped on Creggan but their response was every inch as impressive as you would expect. Marty Johnston finishing a counter by fisting over the bar before Conor McCann repeated the same moments later.
Heading into the final quarter and we were no nearer to finding out where the Pádraig McNamee Cup would reside for the year.
52 minutes and 23 seconds. That’s the time when Michael McCann etched his name into Cargin folklore. This time the score came that settled the first all south-west senior county final. The score that meant Cargin had the bragging rights. At least, that is, until they meet again, and they will. I have no doubt in my mind that this isn’t the last time these two will contest the final again. Creggan came close to fulfilling a dream and realising their potential.
Captain McCann put in an inspired performance for the hour. As his manager described him: ‘A Rolls Royce.’ When I spoke with him during the madness of the celebrations, he was equally as complementary about his gaffer:
“With that man, anything is possible. He gets every inch out of you. He’s meticulous. Nothing you see out there is left to chance to be honest. What you see out there is what we’ve been practising. Ball retention, coming off the shoulder, kick-outs and that. You might think it looks a wee bit hashy but that’s the way it’s supposed to be. That man has everything planned to a tee. Damian could have told you that score before the match started, that’s how good he is.
“We were completely written off and I think that’s what that man wanted too. We had a poor league but we were struggling panel wise with players out. We had some serious injuries, boys out for two and three months at a time and it’s only been the last eight or ten weeks that we’ve had everybody back. Even at that, we were missing three or four main men for the first round and the semi.”
McCann gave us an insight into playing their great rivals when he continued: “Total relief to get over the line.
“You know something and to be fair to both teams, there was a lot of pressure on us and that’s natural. Both teams sort of played within themselves, neither looking to come out and show too much. Keep things tight but that comes from respect.
“It was a heavy hitting game but it wasn’t a dirty game. There wasn’t boys wrestling and hitting off the ball but it was physical. It took a lot out of the legs but I think there’s a mutual respect. We respect them obviously, they’re a very good side but a lot of people wrote us off and we showed experience is everything.”
With the winning score coming relatively early in the game, McCann didn’t realise it was his point that ended up being the match winner: “I didn’t even remember that. It didn’t enter my head being honest. It sort of opened up for me. I cut inside and it went over the black spot. I missed one in the first half with my left but thankfully that one went over. It was very surreal out there. You don’t really remember those things at the time.” The Cargin Captain continued: “We have three or four young boys playing out there who’re in their teens, Jamie Gribben and Ciaran Bradley to name but a couple. We have boys out there who are well fit to be playing at this level and you saw the sort of talent they have.
“Closey (Kieron Close) and the likes coming off the bench gives you a lift. The work he put it, you know you might not realise the work the forwards put it. People will look at the score line and think ‘the forwards didn’t put in a shift’ but they put in as big a shift as anyone.”
Cargin can now look forward to a potential run in the Ulster championship and a date with Gaoth Dobhair of Donegal in the opening round, McCann told us: “We’re in bonus territory now but with Damian, he’ll do the homework on whoever we’re playing and hopefully we can get a run.”