Lessons learned as Creggan look to their ‘Everest’

Brendan McTaggart speaks with Creggan manager, Gerard McNulty

They’ve made their way to Sunday’s final almost under the radar.  Having come through their group unscathed and almost in the shadow of their parish neighbours, Creggan are back in the decider for the third time in four years.

Their pursuit for a first senior championship since 1954 rolls on to Corrigan Park and with the years that’s been, team manager Gerard McNulty has a chance to banish some further demons from last year.

Having come close to reaching their Mecca last year, McNulty has guided the Kickham’s men back with the challenge of Aghagallon ahead.

McNulty gave us his thoughts on the early rounds of the championship when we spoke with him during the week: “In a group of three with only two going through, you might think it’s good news but it went against us and with the last game being cancelled, we felt like we were undercooked going into the quarter-final.

“That’s no disrespect to St Gall’s or Gort na Mona, they each brought something different and we set up accordingly against them but having no fluidity in our schedule was not productive at all.

“We couldn’t get any challenge games, everywhere you turned clubs were preparing for championship games themselves so we focussed on in-house games.  That wait of seven weeks before the St John’s game was difficult.”

The quarter-final against St John’s was, according to McNulty, all about getting through.  Jamie McCann’s goal proving to be the decisive score while they were indebted to the goal keeping abilities of Oisin Kerr, denying the Johnnies with a double save at the death.  McNulty told us: “It was always going to be a tough game.  St John’s at any stage are a big challenge, they have quality players who are tough both mentally and physically.  With Paddy Nugent back, they would’ve been well prepared.

“It was all about winning that game.  The performance for us didn’t really matter.  We knew what we had to do and we did that for the majority of the game but we put ourselves under some pressure towards the end.”

Creggan and Cargin players battle for the ball during the final seconds of their semi-final meeting at St Enda’s. Pic by John McIlwaine

A repeat of last years decider in the semi-final and a Derby to whet the appetite, Creggan gained some form of redemption from their final defeats to Cargin in recent years.  Just like last years final, Cargin started on top with early goals from Tomas McCann and Pat Shivers but McNulty’s men knuckled down.  Overturning a 2-5 to 0-7 half time deficit to win 0-16 to 2-7.  The Creggan manager said he had an awakening of sorts when he came to coach the men from the Staffordstown Road: “You know, I didn’t fully understand the rivalry between Cargin and Creggan until I got here.  It’s crazy.  The overlap between families and the clubs is bizarre but that was the big one for us, for sure.

“Last year’s final, personally was hard to accept.  I don’t think I’ve gotten over it yet to be honest.  It was one that as a manager, I struggled with.  As a manager you have learn how to accept defeat, eventually, but that one stuck with me.

“Once we got back together after covid and what have you, we got together and analysed the game.  See what we did good as a team and what we could have done better.  It was a tight game won on small margins.

“We learned from that day but I think this whole team have been learning and maturing as this year has progressed.”

With derby days comes bragging rights and with the nature of the rivalry between Creggan and Cargin, it’s often which side of the family is celebrating.  McNulty continued by saying it was good to finally have the millstone removed from around their neck: “Having been defeated in two of the last three finals, off course there was added spice to it.  But the fact we’ve now got the monkey away from around our neck, having finally beaten them in the championship, it was such a relief and you could see that on the day.

“We had to treat it like it was another match.  Try and take away the emotion of the rivalry and believe in ourselves.  We knew they would come out at us hard and we knew not to panic.  That’s exactly what happened.  We have been trying to instil into the guys to take a hold of the game.  Knowing what to do in certain situations automatically and being proactive rather than reactive.  The lads are making these calls themselves on the pitch now.

“Looking at that game, we had a much improved game sense.  Knowing when to give the pass, no rash tackling.  It might have been just a year from that final, but that was a long time for a lot of these younger lads who have improved and learned so much from that game.

“But after that, it was done.  The match was over and we were back on the Monday night with a recovery session and focus on this game now on Sunday.”

Sunday’s final means the McNamee Cup will have a new home with Aghagallon making a first final appearance.  But as McNulty continued, he told us this day has been coming: “I’m not surprised at all to see Aghagallon in the final.  When I was at Naomh Eanna with our Thomas (brother), we had a good handle on the underage teams coming through.  Naomh Eanna was one, Portglenone and Aghagallon were the others.  When you look at the age profile of those sides, it was always possible one of them would make the final.

“Looking at the underage games, they always gave you a game.  They are here on merit and we know Sunday isn’t going to be an easy game by any stretch.

“We won’t be doing anything different.  We’re preparing for this game like we have done every game this season.  Putting our attention to the detail.

“The first final I was involved in that finished 5-4 was a bad day and the lads would be the first to admit to it, they froze.  But these lads have been pushing themselves and each other.  They know what they need to do and what’s expected of them.  They’ll be ready for Sunday.”

Sunday’s final will showcase the best of Antrim football.  The highlight in the calendar for all ‘big ball’ enthusiasts and McNulty paid tribute to the Antrim Board as well as all clubs involved: “I hope it’s a good spectacle for the county and hats off to the county for getting the games ahead.  The clubs themselves have been brilliant as well and I hope Sunday can live up to the billing.”

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