All Saints Feile Success Revisited

With the lack of GAA activity at the minute the All Saints club, like many others, has been reminiscing about past glory days. With the National Feile 2020 unlikely to take place due to the Covid-19 crisis we take a look back at an article written by club Chairman, Jim Brady (in his capacity as Youth Chairman) back in 2014 about the clubs only experience of the Feile Peile na nOg to date. 

2014 was a remarkable history-making year for the U14 footballers from All Saints Ballymena. Following a fantastic victory over St Enda’s in the South West Antrim Feile final (a first Feile title for the club at any level) the boys went on to defeat Rossa in the All-County Feile Final to secure a place at the All Ireland Feile tournament, which was held across Connacht from 27-29 June 2014. What was to follow was beyond any of our wildest dreams.

Keen to preserve the memories of the entire Feile experience, club Juvenile Chairperson Jim Brady penned the following blog over the momentous weekend…

Friday 27th June 2014:

Day 1 starts with the long journey West. We see the boys off from St. Patrick’s school at 7.45am and despite the early hour there is an air of anticipation. We line them up for the team photo as the drizzle stops just in time and within 10 minutes they are on their way. The All Ireland adventure begins. The only thing of note on the journey is the RTU number plate of club secretary Martin Campbell that I spot on the motorway to Galway. I beep the horn as I sail past and I think I’ve woken him up. He jolts upright, I’ve disturbed his meditation! Fast forward to 4.00pm and we pull into the beautifully picturesque Monivea GAA grounds, Galway to find several All Saints supporters have just arrived before us. By the start of the first game their number will have swelled considerably. We are also joined by our Northern neighbours, Clann Eireann from Armagh. The facilities of the host club are fantastic. Two billiard table pitches with a covered stand to one side, ample changing rooms and all surrounded by a tightly packed traditional West of Ireland stone wall. On hand the ladies of the local club serving tea and sandwiches for the full 5 hours we were there. Wonderful hospitality. A walk on the pitch for the boys and then to the changing rooms to prepare. I slip in for a few photos. Paddy McIlwaine has prepped me well.

And then before we know it Aidy has the boys warming up and Sean is giving his last minute team talk. Gathered in their traditional huddle, a quick ‘Come on the Saints’ and the first game is under way v Monivea. The Saints boys controlled from start to finish and ended up winners on a scoreline of 2-9 to 0-2. A chance to sit back and watch our next opponents, Clann Eireann who take on our hosts, Mayo Gaels. They win by a large margin and our management have plenty of food for thought, though not for long – we play them next. Time to relax and catch up and chat with the late arrivals. Journey routes are dissected and accommodation stories are shared and of course discussion on the next game, the first against County Champion opposition.

Before we know it the game is on. I occupy a position by the goalposts, Paddy has told me that’s the best position, and watch as Saints dominate the early exchanges before the Lurgan boys came right back in with a penalty goal. Not sure about the award but what’s done is done! A tight first half has us wondering anxiously about the second.

It starts and we pull away only to be caught by another penalty. Tense times follow as the game ebbs and flows with a couple of Saints points countering another Clann Eireann goal, a result of a defensive mix up. Several tense minutes follow and the Lurgan boys are on the attack. I tell keeper Aaron to come back on his line but our senior netminder Ryan ‘Spoon’ Stewart tells him to stay and he does, the result … a superb goal bound save, sure what would I know! It matches the equally impressive save from Brandon in the 1st half. A few seconds later the ref calls time and the men from Antrim are through in a scoreline of 2-10 to 3-3. The players celebrate. A Cup quarter final assured with a game to spare.

An injury though to Ruairi Campbell. We are packing the car to go and he’s carried out of the changing room by Stephen McAllister and handed to his Dad. He’ll be a big loss and his pace down the line will be sorely missed but we have a strong panel. We pile into the car and the Ballymena hordes set off in their different directions. We must have someone staying in every town and village throughout Connacht. Spare a thought for Conor Stewart’s mum, Cathy. She’s reversing her journey from earlier that day to head to a wedding in London tomorrow morning. She promises she’ll be back if we make it through to Sunday! We meet Martin at the petrol station. He’s staying on his own. The life of a club secretary! A holiday to Greece on Monday has been delayed by a few days and the rest of the family has gone on ahead. Commitment!

And before we know it we’re at the beautiful Cloon River B&B, 20kms from Westport. We arrive at 10.45pm, a full 12 hours since we left the Frys Road.

Thoughts on the competition so far: very well organised, a privilege to be involved in and just reward for all the effort the team has put in thus far. A great innovation is the substitution system which sees the game halted twice (once in each half) when both teams make two substitutions each.

Drifting off, elated but tired with thoughts and dreams of what tomorrow might bring.

Saturday 28th June 2014:

Early to rise again as we have to be at Mayo Gaels for 10.00am. We play our host club in a game that could see us top the section. We are already into the ‘Cup’ but final positions are important in the seeding going forward. It will interesting to see how the boys cope when playing the children of their new ‘overnight families’. Driving out into the beautiful Connacht countryside and heading through towns and villages that would become very familiar over the next few days we head towards Mayo Abbey Park. Our B&B is about 40 minutes from the club (we were told 15 minutes when we booked months ago). On arrival our first chance to meet with the Mayo Gaels families and learn more about them and their club, and of course check if our sons have made it through the night. Not to worry… they are warming up with soccer penalty kicks in the goal mouth with their new friends, a typical scene in most Connacht GAA grounds that morning I would suggest. A leisurely pace to life around here at the minute is just what the doctor ordered after the travels of the previous day. Just time to hear that our children are a credit to us… are you sure? This would be a constant theme over the weekend. Tom tells me a little about the history of the area and of course for obvious reasons I’m interested to hear about the new primary school building just opened beside the club last year. Have to be careful though – there are 3 Parish schools!

The teams line out and it’s clear that the spirit of the Feile is alive and well in both clubs, every player will have played Feile football over the last 2 days by the time this game is over. A narrow one point win achieved and only a draw would have been more fitting, try suggesting that to our manager Sean O’Brien! A wonderful joint team photo opportunity is taken. The host club has laid on lunch for us all in the clubrooms and while we eat our way through a never ending supply of refreshments, all served with a cheery welcome the kids are competing in the Kick Fada and Penalty Kick competition. We’ll get out to see them soon… just after I finish this 3rd cup of tea! Before we know it they are back inside and tokens from each club are being exchanged. A few words from Martin on our behalf and we will be leaving with a framed ‘Gaels’ jersey and a Feile t-shirt that everyone wants to see our team selector Aidy McCann try to squeeze into. Then it’s on the road again, bound for the Connacht GAA centre and a quarter final game against opposition yet to be determined… how long it would take to find out who they were we could not have anticipated!

What a magnificent place. 7 or 8 full size pitches, a 4G floodlit arena, central administration block, changing complex and thousands of GAA fans in the sun, could it get any better? After a few minutes standing around Sean sets off to see what’s happening, or in his words to “apply a bit of pressure… these kids need a changing room”. He returns and brings his charges to the room he has secured and we set off to watch some football. It’s approximately 2.15pm. Games on every pitch. Cheers and groans provide the surround sound and we await our game at 3.15pm. But there’s a problem. 3 teams have tied on points. How to sort it out? Score difference surely, No – a GAA solution is required… have a 3 way play off instead. Ah well, a chance to see potential future opposition is the bright side. New Ballymena fans have started to arrive. Felix and Brenda McQuillan with young Ciaran. Southern brogues cheering for All Saints? It’s the Daly’s of Roscommon.

Lots of time to kill. One advantage is that we get to watch our hosts play their Shield quarter final. They come up short and their Ballymena supporters are saddened but focus will be needed elsewhere shortly… we hope! Everything is running behind. The play-offs are an hour late. They’ll take another 50 minutes to complete. Eventually they start and we’ll be playing one of these teams. We mill around making small talk with one eye on the games. Well over an hour later and the 3rd game is underway. It’s after 5.30pm. Sean and the guys take the boys away for their warm up, the only spare green space a grass area reserved for overspill parking. But not to worry, 5 minutes each way and we’ll be on. Warm up completed, the Saints and the Galbally boys from Limerick approach the pitch. Game on… or is it? Just as they move to take their positions two new teams trot onto the turf with a Feile official in tow. What…  We have to wait until this game is over… You’re kidding… What’s this about? The play offs get the blame and tempers become understandably heated, just like the players who have been in the sun now for over 3 hours. The juvenile chairman and the club secretary get involved but to no avail. Their calm(ish) demeanour is not enough and we lick our wounds and await the conclusion of this Division 4 quarter final. It’s 15 minutes in when Aidy rolls up shouting that they’ve found us a pitch. As we move en masse in the direction that he’s pointing the excitement starts to build. Late as it is All Saints enter their first All Ireland quarter final in their history. Will the wait have been worth it? Will the sun and heat have drained them, will the hunger in their tummies translate to hunger on the pitch?? Game on!

Its 6.11pm. We’ve been here for just over 4 hours without a game. It’s been that long that Ruairi recovers, abandons his crutches and takes his place on the team. Another Knock miracle someone jokes. The ball goes up and away we go. We’re playing with the breeze. I’ve been sending Damian Kelly texts at every match. Wait till our Treasurer Rosie Casey gets my mobile bill! Within a minute we’re one up, then another point 2 minutes later. 3 up after 4 minutes then a goal to put us 6 up. 7 up after 8 minutes and then a goal by Rory Corr followed by a Ronnie Marshall point. He started playing football 10 weeks ago! Shea O’Brien gets another 3 pointer and it’s 3-5 to 0-0. We’re cruising. Spare a thought for the Limerick men. They’ve been waiting just like us. Shea with another 2 points and he’s scoring for fun during this tournament followed by another from Conor Stewart and its half time. 3-8 to 0-0. Second half starts and points are exchanged, Shea again and we lead 3-9 to 0-1. A Shea free and a yellow card for big Ryan McGarry and we start to dream of semi-finals tomorrow. Cormac Lemon points, Rian McCann is booked as is Ronnie and just to make his point he then sticks one in the net. It finishes 4-10 to 0-1. Word comes through. Sean MacCumhails of Donegal. Ballybofey we guess and we’re right. It’s back to the bus to wonder. We’ve made it through to the third day. Was this part of the plan?

I’ve been fielding texts and calls from home all day. Dessie Metrustry gets in touch. “Can we begin to dream, is it possible, should we come down?” All I can tell him is that if he doesn’t he might miss something special, very special indeed! Twenty minutes later and, I presume with lots of encouragement from Helen, he’s back on looking for directions. It’s to be a 6.30am start. What else would you be doing on a June Sunday morning.

Hungry – Yes … Tired – Yes … Emotional – Yes again! We pull up at Mayo Gaels clubrooms. It’s close to 8.00pm and the ladies have been busy in the community centre. They’ve been waiting for hours on us. Food and refreshments all round. There’s plenty for everyone. Then up to the pitch where our hosts have laid on activities for everyone. Bouncy castles for the wee ones, bouncy castle bungie runs, sumo wrestler suits and gladiators for the older ones. Aidy V Dessie Lemon, battle of the “Saint’s Sumos”. Dessie tries hard but submits to the superior skill, and weight of the Hugomont Hustler! Things are heating up on the Gladiator inflatable. A circle of Black and White guard their territory like it’s Custer’s last stand. The Mayo boys attack but the Saints stand firm. The Connacht men rebound off like balls from a hurley master net. All good fun, hope no-one gets hurt. All are agreed we’re glad Sean’s not here! And then we are off, back to the B&B to put the head down but not before a chance to chat with Aidy about the weekend’s events so far. How surreal can it get. Sitting in someone’s front room in deepest Mayo discussing All Ireland chances. Could it happen?

Sunday 29th June 2014:

Another bright morning and after a second hearty breakfast the Brady’s and the McCann’s head out the road for the last time. Paul from the B&B has got the buzz… “Make sure ye text me the result”, his final words. Anticipation is probably the best way to describe the mood that morning as we gather at the Gaels for one last time.  If we leave sharpish we will catch the other semi-final. The children arrive with their host families and it’s goodbyes all round as we depart for the GAA Centre. Some of the club members will be joining us there for support, a lovely gesture. It’s now that I notice for the 1st time the All Saints flag flying above the club gates. A few last photos of that for the website and we off again. The eighth time through Knock this weekend, let’s hope the prayers work. As we approach the Connaught Centre word comes through from Peter that there is not a parking space to be had. Another sign of the momentous occasion that is Feile finals day. Safely parked on a temporary green area just inside the gates we all head to the central meeting point for pitch details. And who do we see, Cathy back from London. An early morning flight to Knock airport to be collected by Sean and Karen. Commitment. Let’s hope it’s rewarded!

First semi-final underway and we are joined by the Metrustry’s, Dessie and Charlie and the Connolly’s, Conor and Oisin. A long journey down, let’s hope they aren’t headed back up the road after a mere half hours football. The game is won by Portlaiose with an easy enough victory over Tipperary. Then it’s us. I am taking photos on the far side of the pitch alongside the Donegal fans. They are just as vocal in support of their boys as we are of ours. The game starts at 12.18pm and its first score to the Ballybofey men. The follow with a second point and before we know it they are 0-3 to 0-0 ahead. We are struggling in midfield, our strongest sector of the pitch up to now. Team captain Ryan McGarry is carrying an injury and it’s affected our momentum.  Things are just not going our way. A full ten minutes pass before we score with a pointed 35 yard free from Eoghan Daly. Our first score has never taken this long to achieve all weekend. Shea pops up with another and we are only one behind 3 minutes later. Suddenly there’s activity in the Donegal box and a goal is scored. I didn’t see who scored it and I don’t think I know yet who it was but it puts us up by 2 on the stroke of half-time, 1-2 to 0-3. Our midfield started coming into the game in the latter stages of the half and we look forward to more of the same after the short whistle.

Ruairi Campbell scores a point after 5 minutes of 2nd half play. Donegal reduce the deficit with a pointed free followed one minute later with a point from Shea again. Our defence is doing sterling work to repel the advancing Donegal men with unsung heros in Matthew Downey and centre half back, Ronnie. Kevin Brady even races back from corner forward to thwart an attack with a well timed tackle. We enter the final minutes. I am on my 16th text of the game to Damian back in Ballymena. The Twitter following has been frantic with ‘refresh’ buttons being hit all over the town and beyond. They are shouting in the ‘Cosy Corner’ we’re told. Fr. Delargy has told the Sunday morning congregation that the team is doing well and here we are to witness it all live.

We are ahead by a goal. Donegal get a free just outside the box. They have to go for goal. They do and the defence, not for the first time today holds strong. I send the final text: “All Ireland Final here we come”. Damian’s reply is swift … “Unbelievable”. Cue scenes of celebration not seen before. The game was a tense affair and could have gone either way. We all agree that the comeback was immense. The first time we have had to do so all weekend. It will stand us in good stead for the final challenge, won’t it?

The final is set for 4.00pm. We won’t make the same mistake again. We get in touch with the local hotel and swiftly get the lads and supporters away for a bite to eat. I take the food orders and the team gets into their huddle outside the hotel to aid the organisation of it. They are focused even when it comes to ordering their lunch. Relaxation is the key and we spend a pleasant hour or so in the McWilliam Hotel. The staff couldn’t do more for us and we discover on leaving that the manageress is a Mayo Gaels woman … enough said! Just time to get an update on the Antrim V Offaly hurling game… the County ahead by a few points at that stage and the omens are good.  Contact with home continues and Damian and Micky O’Kane are on the phone. How will we mark the boys’ success, what time will they be back at, will we organise a celebration at the club? A quick chat with Sean and Dessie and the celebrations, win, lose or draw, are on.

As with such huge tournaments things run a little late again and the final won’t be until 4.45pm. Supporters relax on the hillside beside the pitch, Fintan steals away with the camera for some informal people watching shots and we catch up on the other games and see champions crowned in other divisions. Sean and his team of coaches settle down behind us on the hill and pick their team. Injury worries will affect decisions. The Division 1 final takes place beside us and we see a bit of that. Naas will eventually come through against Nemo.  The Division 5 final is over and is won by Dicksboro of Kilkenny and we are next on. We didn’t realise at the time but we will be the final game to finish that day. Away the lads go and do their warm up and then the ref calls them in. A team shot and they line out, ready for the biggest game of both their own lives and the history of the club. I occupy my usual position on the far line among the opposition supporters. Paddy McIllwaine has entrusted me with the “Big Lens” and I need pictures for him on his return from holiday. Sorry Paddy but if the semi-final is anything to go by the excitement will mean few pictures for the scrapbook.

The ref throws it in and the game has begun. Injury to Ryan means he moves from midfield to full back. A good move for the defence but a strain on Eoghan in midfield without his partner. That said we score a point after 5 minutes and another almost immediately. Two up but certainly not cruising. This is going to be a battle. Suddenly Portlaoise attack and a rasping shot hits the underside of the crossbar and travels downwards and out into open play. Screams of no goal from Ballymena supporters join with shouts of Goal from the Portlaoise contingent. Referee consults his umpire (no Hawkeye here) and the goal is given. The Portlaoise boys are ecstatic. This will test our resolve. They have thwarted our hand-passing game very effectively and forced us into many uncharacteristic handling errors.  They’ve done their homework. They point within a minute followed by one from that man Shea again 5 minutes later and we are 1 behind. Into the last minute of normal time and the ball drops into our box. A scramble ensues and disaster strikes, another goal to them. The whistle blows.

The Saints supporters are tense. The Portlaoise supporters must be happy with their lot. Sean gathers the huddle. Can’t hear what he is saying but no doubt the boys will respond as always. The utmost respect has been there since the start of the season, why would it wane now? Peter, Aidy and Dessie are as usual contributing at an individual player level.

The second half starts and we point from a free 3 minutes in, you guessed it, O’Brien. Daly responds from the kick out in kind and the deficit is down to 2. His midfield partner is back by his shoulder and the difference is immediate. Surging runs forward, a hallmark of our tournament so far are back on the agenda.  The impetus is with us. Supporters start to believe but we keep it to ourselves. Don’t tempt fate.  Another Portlaoise attack and we repel their advances again, this defence is watertight! A driving run from midfield, a high ball in, a fist goes up and the net ripples. Shea O’Brien, you beauty! We’re one ahead with 9 to go. Still not time to get carried away. They level with a free of their own before we sneak ahead by one a minute later. 3 minutes left and we win a free.  30 yards out from the Portlaoise goal. That man again, O’Brien slots it over and we’re two up. Must be time up ref. What is he delaying for?  Hold on to possession is the call, drive forward is another.

The ball is driven out by the keeper. We win possession in the final third of the field, time for another attack. It’s not needed. The whistle blows. All Ireland Champions. Is it true? Has it really happened?

Unbelievable!

Pitch invasions are not allowed in the GAA, just try stopping us. They run on from all angles. Kids jump from their perches on the fence. I capture some of the invaders on camera as does Paddy McAllister. Scenes never thought possible, scenes maybe never to be repeated again. Who knows? Just savour the moment.  Players hug, supporters cheer and we all struggle with our emotions. Fathers cry, Mummies cry and Brian McCambridge tells me this isn’t good for a man of his age! If anyone deserves to witness this it’s Brian.

For those who were not there it’s hard to summarise how we feel but put simply, it was an outpouring of celebration in the first instance for the team and management themselves and then for the club as a whole. The Portlaoise manager summed it up when he told the boys,  “No one can ever take this away from you lads, you’re All Ireland Feile Champions” before being overcome with the emotion of the experience himself.

A few minutes or ten later and we are headed to the pavilion. I see Sean and Ryan ahead being ushered through the doorway. I follow on after, camera in hand to record this special moment. Up the stairs and out onto the balcony overlooking the complex. This is our Hogan Stand, this is our All Ireland presentation. Liam O’Neill, the GAA president, is finishing a bar of chocolate quickly grabbed between presentations no doubt. It struck me how ordinary this moment was for him and everyone else contrasted with how extraordinary it was for us. He was about to make the last of the day’s presentations. Some dozen or more before us I would say. And every club gets its moment. Sean gives the club’s details to the cup secretary and Ryan is introduced to the President then it’s up on to the two wooden pallets used to elevate the players and he holds the cup aloft. Below him the Saints supporters cheer, there’s more tears of joy and maybe a photo or 2 taken and then we are off to regroup, get the last minute team and individual photos with the cup. For good measure someone has brought the framed Mayo Gaels jersey from the bus and it occupies central spot in the group shot. Fitting really when we consider the welcome we received and the GAA ethos… never forget those who helped you achieve, in whatever way!

We walk back to the car. Elated, just elated. I notice the lack of cars left. We are the last group to leave bar the organisers. How long ‘til we get home dad, can we come to the club too?

The phone never stops. Texts galore!

“What time will the players be back at?”

“Are they stopping in Bundoran first?”

Councillor O’Loan texts his congratulations, “Would you be interested in a Mayor’s reception?”

Sean Rafferty is on to congratulate the team and of course the St. Louis boys.

Dessie from Tir Na nOg texts too.

… and it goes on. Through Sligo, Blacklion, Enniskillen….

“Fantastic news… well done!”

“All Ireland Champs… Hard to believe!”

… and on to Antrim and the A26!

“You must be walking on air – tremendous achievement” from Lamh Dhearg Bukey

And from James Fallon in Mayo: “Enjoy the celebrations… at least we can say we give ye the closest game… Go All Saints!”

It’s 10.20pm when we turn into at Slemish Park. There’s a handful of people but plenty of cars. I’ll get the camera ready, getting dark, might need the flash. Suddenly there’s movement and excitement. From the club house they come in their droves, a never ending sea of celebration. Someone must have the inside track on the bus journey. They’ll be here soon – no – they’ve arrived!

Within seconds the patient crowd can’t contain their excitement. Cheers go up, the clapping starts and the door opens – who will be out first? It’s the captain, Ryan, self-effacing as always we will him to hold the cup aloft. Sensing the occasion he does and the cheer reverberates around Crebilly. What scenes, never before witnessed here in this place, never to be forgotten!

Then we line them up and it’s into the Club. A Senior players Guard of Honour through the doors to take their rightful place on the stage. They’ve sat here at many a presentation night but never like this, never like this! And then it starts… “Oh when the Saints, Oh when the Saints, Oh when the Saints go marching in” and suddenly you realise the size of the crowd. Two hundred, three hundred at a guess and all wanting to be part of it, part of something special. A few words of thanks, the captain speaks and the celebrations proper start. A wonderful end to a wonderful experience and we’ve arrived. All Saints have arrived!

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