All-Ireland Intermediate Football Championship Semi-Final
Naomh Éanna vs An Spidéal (Galway)
Sunday January 20
Páirc Tailteann, Navan. Throw In: 2pm
By Brendan McTaggart
This Sunday will mark exactly 50 days since Naomh Éanna achieved the unthinkable. From the perennial bridesmaid of Antrim football to the Kings of Ulster, it’s been quite a year for the men from Glengormley. Under the tutelage of Frank Fitzsimons and his backroom team, Naomh Éanna have squashed accusations of choking on the big occasion to break new ground for Antrim football by winning the Ulster Intermediate championship. On Sunday, they will hope to follow in the footsteps of last years Ulster champions Moy by bringing home the Holy Grail.
Considering it was their first time venturing into an Ulster campaign never mind an All-Ireland, the Naomh Éanna men would have been forgiven for thinking they were in bonus territory. Captain James McAuley told us otherwise: “Frank came in at the start of the year and he kept our feet on the ground. We just set out to take the season as it comes. Settle into Division One and get ourselves safe then have a look at Antrim (the championship). Frank always maintained that we were capable of winning an Ulster championship. There was a bit of a fuss made about the club having not won an Antrim championship but with the age profile of the team, these lads are seriously ambitious and once we realised, we were capable of winning Ulster it was a matter of putting shoulders to the wheel and getting over the line.”
The conundrum for all teams preparing for an All-Ireland semi-final is the same. How to fill the void that a seven week break brings? There aren’t many teams or pitches available but friendlies against Gaoth Dobhair and QUB have helped but McAuley gives you the impression the Naomh Éanna lads have relished the prolonged season: “I think its about seven weeks altogether with the break. We took a week off after the Ulster Final and back to training the week after. Everything’s been the same as it has been all year, just working hard and training hard to get ready for an Spidéal.”
Memories of that night in Armagh remain vivid on the Hightown Road and the celebrations after were something McAuley says will live long in their memories: “It was unbelievable. I was saying to the lads after the match that the size of what we had achieved wouldn’t set in until a few weeks after but even now it hasn’t really set in. Those are nights you won’t forget for the rest of your life and its been a pleasure to be part of a team who has achieved that.”
The match itself was probably the most controlled performance of the year by Naomh Éanna. Teams hope to peak on the big occasion and McAuley’s side put in close to the perfect performance on the night. When Mullahoran looked like they would wrestle momentum, Naomh Éanna needed leaders. Joe Maskey was that man on the night and McAuley added the cult figure within the club is rightly deserving of the praise coming his way: “Joe’s been a colossus for us throughout the whole championship. He didn’t really play too much for us in the league with injuries but he came in and slotted right into midfield, he really is at home there.
“They had a couple of purple patches. At the start of the second half they hit three unanswered points and Joe made a catch that broke their momentum. They hit the cross bar and Joe scored the goal at the other end of the pitch. I can only sing his praises and he’s loving it.”
When teams go on championship journeys, often there is a moment when a team knows it’s their day or even their year. A let off, a moment of brilliance or outstanding team performance but the Naomh Éanna defender said their success has been through sheer hard work and commitment from everyone involved and they are reaping their reward: “I don’t think there was a defining moment throughout the season when we realised, we could do something special. It’s something that’s engrained throughout the spine of the team. We beat Cargin at the start of the year and we were in a few one point games. To get over the line in those maybe helped us come championship time but I don’t think there was a defining moment, it’s just something that’s been there throughout.”
McAuley’s full attention is without question on Sunday’s last four encounter but he did admit he would have loved to have been preparing for the Sigerson’s Cup match with QUB on Sunday as well. Now in his last year of a Master’s degree on Software Development , McAuley agreed the scheduling of the Sigerson’s Cup match has been bizarre and it effects more than him within the Naomh Éanna squad with Odhrán Eastwood missing for Queen’s while Peter Healy and Eoin Nagle missing UCD’s match: “It’s the same day (Sunday) and effects me and Odhran. We weren’t available for the McKenna Cup and I think they tried to get the Sigerson game moved but even if it was midweek that wouldn’t have been ideal either. This year there’s a ‘back-door’ route so maybe if we get over an Spideal then we might be available for that game but this is somewhere where we might not be again so obviously all the priorities lay with the club.
“This is my last year at Queen’s. It might be different for Odhrán but I was injured for last year’s Sigerson’s and it would have been nice to have had a few appearances but maybe that’s still possible yet.”
To coin a phrase and cliché, there are no bad teams when it comes to an All-Ireland semi-final. An Spidéal have earned the right to be there by winning Galway and Connaught and will pose another step up in calibre of opposition. McAuley told us however, the players have been focussing on their own preparations for Sunday’s match: “We’ve sort of left everything on an Spidéal down to Frank (Fitzsimons) to be honest. We’re just concentrating on ourselves and getting us right. I think we’re going to need that eight or nine out of ten performance against an Spideal and if it doesn’t come and we manage to get across the line, it will be needed against whoever we get in the final. It hasn’t come yet but it is coming.”
They’ve improved with every passing game on their way to the first All-Ireland campaign for their club. On Sunday they undoubtedly will have to raise their performance levels once again but one thing’s for certain, Naomh Éanna are capable of more. Just how much more remains to be seen but for every question that has been posed to them during 2018, they have answered it and asked more of the opposition. There’s a no fear attitude and a swagger that hasn’t been there before. A confidence and belief. For the Naomh Éanna faithful, the 50 days of anticipation nears an end. For the players, 50 days of preparation comes to a close. They are 60 minutes away from a date in Croke Park, on Sunday in Páirc Tailteann Naomh Éanna are 60 minutes away from breaking more ground. If the last person to leave the Hightown Road could put the light off, that would be great. It’s time for more history to be made.