AIB All Ireland Intermediate Club Football Championship final
By Brendan McTaggart
Collecting Antrim and Ulster championships, James McAuley now leads his team out onto Croke Park. A dream come true for any player but for the Queen’s student, he’s taking it all in his stride: “It is unchartered territory for the club, but I don’t think we are out of our depth either.
“We are a good enough team to compete at any level. People are coming to training and everyone is buzzing and we are ready to go. Hopefully, on Saturday, we’ll be ready to let loose in Croke Park.
“We are enjoying the build-up as much as possible, but we are trying not to get too carried away at the same time.”
The atmosphere within the Naomh Éanna camp is incredibly relaxed, like it has been all season. They are the epitome of the saying ‘one game at a time.’ In an interview after the Antrim final, Naomh Éanna manager Frank Fitzsimons told us he was promised an All-Ireland by his captain but McAuley said they’ve just been enjoying the journey: “Ah no, at the start of the year, we were just taking it step-by-step. We were looking to stay in Division One then build for the Antrim. Things went well and we moved on to Ulster and then into the All-Ireland. We are just enjoying it at the minute, the build-up has been unreal.” The Naomh Éanna captain continued: “Everyone is enjoying their football and the games can’t come quick enough. We are playing good football and we are enjoying our football. All the hard work has been done over the winter.
“It was great to score three goals, but we weren’t completely happy with our first half performance. We conceded three points on the bounce going into half-time and we conceded seven frees out of a total of 11 points so we still have plenty to work on.”
The game plan Naomh Éanna have adopted during their campaign has been electrifying. A resolute defence with tenacious tackling yet an attack with blistering pace. McAuley agreed:“Any time I have been speaking to Frank (Fitzsimons) about it, he has been saying that, on paper at least, Croke Park would be built for our team because it is wide open and it will allow us to kick the ball.
“If it doesn’t come down to that, we are able to run the ball as good as any team in the country, I think. Hopefully we can show that on Saturday because we probably haven’t had that eight or nine out of 10 performance yet. We are hoping it comes next week.”
Kilcummin will obviously provide a stern test for the Hightown Road side but the Naomh Éanna defender is relishing and looking forward to the task: “I was thinking about it after the Spideal game. It is kind of like your childhood dream – to be playing a Kerry team at Croke Park in an All-Ireland final.
“It will be an unreal experience and it would be great to bring the All-Ireland back up the road to Hightown.”
It’s easy to see why McAuley is the Naomh Éanna captain. He’s a leader. Nothing fazes him and he doesn’t get carried away. Saturday will be the biggest game in his career and if all goes to plan he’ll join the short list of Antrim gaels who have led their victorious side up the steps of the Hogan Stand. With that prospect in mind, McAuley added: “How we’ve dealt with things all year has just been game-by-game, competition-by-competition.
“We’ll enjoy the build-up, but there’s a game to be played at the end of the day and we’ve a job to do.
“We’ll try and keep it as professional as possible and keep our head’s focused on the game and not get too carried away.
“We’ve learned with every game and our performance level has probably raised with every game, especially through the Ulster campaign. We beat Doohamlet, Tattyreagh then Mullahoran. Looking back, you’d probably say Spideal was our best performance. For a young team, we are learning with every game and we are learning from our mistakes. Hopefully, we’ll continue that progression.