AIB Ulster Intermediate Football Championship Final
Naomh Éanna vs Mullahoran (Cavan) at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh
Throw in: 5pm
By Brendan McTaggart
All roads lead to the Athletic Grounds on Saturday evening for Naomh Éanna and another chance to etch their names in history. The Antrim Intermediate football champions have navigated their way to an Ulster Final and a chance to become the first winners of the provincial crown from the Saffron County.
Cavan side Mullahoran stand in Naomh Éanna’s way and while the Hightown Road side will go in as underdogs, it would take a brave punter to lay against them. Having accounted for the Monaghan and Tyrone champions to get this far, Naomh Éanna will come into Saturday’s final confident of bringing more glory to the Hightown Road.
Former Antrim senior football manager and Lámh Dhearg clubman Frank Fitzsimons has masterminded Naomh Éanna’s success. With Pat Hughes and Thomas McNulty in his management team, Fitzy and co have guided Naomh Éanna to the brink. “I was apprehensive at the start. Outside of my own club, I had only managed Antrim at all levels but after a couple of weeks that changed.” The words of Fitzsimons when asked on the beginning of his tenure. After a successful 2017, gaining promotion to Division One for the first time in 13 years, Naomh Éanna maintained their position in Division One for the 2019 season and Fitzsimons told me it was their only objective at the start of the year: “You see progress on the pitch during matches but we saw the progress in the training field early days. It’s been a very, very good year and hopefully we can make it a great year.
“Retaining our Division One status was paramount for us at the beginning of the year and when that was achieved, we reassessed, gave the championship a run and this is where it’s got us.”
Playing in Division One and holding their own at the top table of Antrim football has stood by the Hightown Road side in 2018 and has been a learning curve that has helped them through the treacherous waters that the Ulster championship can bring but the man known as ‘Russ’ told us felt they had a strong chance in Ulster before their opening match against Doohamlet: “Doohamlet and Tattyreagh were big, strong sides but we came up against a lot of strong teams in the Antrim championship as well. St Paul’s was a big match then Davitt’s where the scoreline probably didn’t reflect the match. Moneyglass was huge and then the final against a Gort na Mona side who were flying at the time.
“After that match we told the lads to enjoy that night and the Sunday but it was back to the training pitch on the Tuesday night and it was then I thought we could have a run in Ulster. The attitude of the players that night was fantastic and I just sensed something was brewing.”
It took a late surge and two points from substitute Michael Morgan to seal Naomh Éanna’s place in the final with the Glengormley side showing huge character to recover from a late Tattyreagh goal. Fitzsimons added: “The semi-final was tough but once they got that goal, I knew we’d get a reaction. It’s something that this team has shown throughout the year. They almost need to go behind to get the best out of them and that night was no different.
“We’ve all spoken about it. The players and management. It’s not the ideal situation waiting on going behind before getting a reaction. We know we need to be more proactive than reactive but with every set back, the lads have answered it.
“These situations brings different characters forward. You either roll your sleeves up and get stuck in or you roll over and its good night. Thankfully we’ve got enough lads in the squad who are prepared to roll their sleeves up.”
With the chance to become the first Antrim team to win the provincial crown at this level, the rewards are huge for Naomh Éanna. They are coming up against an experienced Mullahoran side who came through a titanic battle against a much fancied Banagher side in their semi-final. Extra time, extra-extra time and eventually free kicks was required to separate the Cavan and Derry champions before Naomh Éanna’s semi against Tattyreagh, Fitzsimons told me: “It was unusual alright but we’ve been faced with that type of thing a few times this year where we maybe haven’t had enough time to get warmed up. Maybe that’s why we took a bit longer to get started.”
Pressure and nerves come hand in hand with big occasions and Saturday will be no different but with a young age profile, the Naomh Éanna squad have the youthful exuberance and no fear attitude that has seen them make breaking ground in 2018. Fitzsimons added: “I’ve been trying to get it through to players for years. There should be no pressure on them going into matches, all the pressure should fall on the management. If you feel nerves, you don’t enjoy the game and if you’re not enjoying it then what’s the point? Off course there will be lads who will be feeling nerves, that’s only natural but they’re up for this and looking forward to Saturday evening.”
Not many could have predicted Naomh Éanna would still be playing championship football on the first weekend of December. It’s been a season to never forget for Frank Fitz and his side but the Naomh Éanna manager is hopeful it’s only the beginning: “Plenty of people have been calling this bonus territory for us but I don’t but into that at all to be honest. This team has huge potential, they’ve performed well so far and hopefully they’ll continue to push on regardless of the result on Saturday night.”
60 minutes from a maiden Ulster crown and 60 minutes from etching their names in Antrim and Ulster history, Naomh Éanna stand on the verge of greatness. Let’s get behind the Hightown Road men on Saturday. #NÉA