By Brendan McTaggart
The outpour of emotion and euphoria on the Athletic Grounds at the full time whistle was something special on Saturday evening. But then again, Naomh Éanna are a special club. Much has been written and said in the recent weeks of their past but the Glengormley side have been shaping their own future and on a cold night in Armagh, they reached the summit of Ulster.
A late concession of a penalty from ‘keeper Paddy Flood when the Naomh Éanna shot stopper took ‘one for the team’ by dragging down Shane Shiels when the Mullahoran man looked set to find the net added to the drama but did little to effect the outcome of the final. An outstanding display from the Hightown Road men.
“Credit to them, they were outstanding tonight to the last man. Fantastic.” The initial words from the self-proclaimed ‘proudest man in Antrim tonight’, Naomh Éanna manager Frank Fitzsimmons.
The pivotal moment of the final came in the 52nd minute when Cormac O’Reilly’s rasping drive battered Paddy Flood’s crossbar and 20 seconds later Joe Maskey buried Naomh Éanna’s second major of the night. A hammer blow for the Cavan side and while they will look at that moment, Fitzsimmons felt they were worthy winners with the other goal chances they created on the night and while Mullahoran staged a comeback at the start of the second half, the Naomh Éanna manager knew his side would weather the storm: “We had two or three chances too with their ‘keeper saving from Ethan (Gibson) but when that one came back off the crossbar you do start to think that maybe this is going to be our night.
“I was saying to Pat (Hughes) when they kicked the three points after half time that we need a response here and to be fair we got it, we got it back to three again soon after.”
The trickery and ability to unlock the defence from Odhran Eastwood was invaluable on the night but the pace at which Naomh Éanna were able to break the line against the Mullahoran defence caused the Cavan men problems all night. Kristian and Peter Healy were major threats with Conor McAuley and Conan Lyttle adding a further dimension when required.
Mullahoran’s tactic of going long suited Naomh Éanna with the full back line more than a match for the majority of the game while they always had a man spare to help with the aerial threat of Enda O’Reilly and Philip Brady. Fitzsimmons added: “We watched the video and they are route one in attack. Once they got to the ’45 they launch everything in but I thought Mick (McNamee) and Killian Jennings and young Dairmuid McNulty in the full back line were super for us.
“Breaking at pace from the back, our boys play some serious stuff. You saw right at the end, Peter Healy running, that would knock the heart out of most teams with a minute of two left in a match.
“You see those boys there, hopefully Lenny will bring a few of them into the panel but not until we’re done but the ground work was done before myself and Pat came in. There was a good squad of young lads there and we just happen to be lucky to be here to be honest. It’s great for this club and for this community.”
The bridesmaid of Antrim football became kings of Ulster on Saturday night and with it have cast aside any notion of underachievers. The Naomh Éanna squad have developed a steely resolve and a knowhow on the big occasion and it was apparent on Saturday night. They had lads prepared to do whatever it took to get over the line, none more than Ruairi Scott who ended up in goals for injury time. The Naomh Éanna manager added: “See to be honest, our second ‘keeper is Conor Devlin who’s playing for Larne and Saturday’s don’t suit him so we had to bite the bullet tonight. Scotty was out on his feet and between him and Paddy, they sorted it out amongst themselves. Paddy came off and said Scotty can kick a ball anything from 40 to 60 yards and at that stage that’s all we were looking.”
A maiden journey into the All-Ireland lays ahead for Naomh Éanna in the new-year with Galway champions Spiddal and Fitzsimmons told us on a promise made to him by his captain, James McAuley: “I’m going to enjoy preparing and getting us ready over the next few weeks. I’ll enjoy this tonight and let them enjoy it for a week or two but we’ll get their feet back on the ground because at the end of the day they’re going to be representing their club, their county and now Ulster.
“It’s about getting prepared for it. Obviously them boys could settle for this but I don’t think they will. The first night we went back to training at O’Donnell’s after the county final, James McAuley made me a promise that he wasn’t going to get me an Ulster title, he was getting me an All-Ireland title. That was on the first night back and it gave us a lift and now we’re two steps away.”