Do you have to lose one to win one?

Northern Switchgear SFC Final Preview

St. Mary’s Aghagallon v Kickham’s Creggan

By Paddy McIlwaine

The old adage, ‘you have to lose one to win one’ has been well documented in the GAA past and if that is the case then Kickham’s Creggan’s name is already on the SFC Cup. Kickham’s were beaten narrowly in the 2018 and 2020 finals to nearest neighbours and deadliest rivals, Erin’s Own Cargin on both occasions so from that point of view they have already accomplished the first part of the equation.

As we all know by now, matters in football as in life are not that simple and St. Mary’s Aghagallon are unlikely to be too fazed by those statistics and are likely to relish the underdog tag as they head to Corrigan Park this Sunday.

Kickham’s Creggan will start this Sunday’s final as favourites and their semi-final win over Erin’s Own, Cargin at St. Enda’s suggests that the favourites tag is there on merit. Having lost to their neighbours and reigning champions in the 2018 and 2020 finals their strong second half performance at Hightown suggests that Creggan have learned from those earlier defeats and are in rude health going into Sunday’s final.

They are a strong side with a good blend of youth and experience with Oisin Kerr in goals, Ricky and Martin Johnston, Kevin Small and Ruairi McCann all having represented Antrim at Senior level while Ethan Carey Small, Matthew Rogers and Jamie McCann are amongst the more recent additions to the side and they have all been excellent this year.

Jamie McCann has been a revelation at left half back and has contributed handsomely on the scoreboard while Ruairi McCann provides a real threat in attack. County hurling captain, Conor McCann forms a formidable mid-field partnership with Kevin Small and against Cargin they were instrumental in wrestling the title from the champions.

Aghagallon have an excellent keeper themselves in Luke Mulholland who is the present Antrim custodian and collected a division 4 National League medal with the Saffron’s this year while Eunan Walsh, Ruairi McCann and Adam Loughran were all part of that Antrim panel.

David McAlarnon made a return to the side this year to replace the unavailable Oisin Lenehan at mid-field and has carried on where he had left off with consistent performances which have played a big part in his side’s success this year.

St. Mary’s won their first U21 championship back in 2016 and many of that team form the backbone of Sunday’s side while seven of the panel were on the St. Ronan’s Lurgan side who won the McCrory and Hogan Cups in 2018 so the side is unlikely to be fazed by Sunday’s final.

Path to the final

Creggan enjoyed a much easier passage through the group stages than their opponents on Sunday. They were drawn in a group of three with St. Gall’s and Gort na Mona and recorded fairly comfortable home and away victories over the Milltown Row side.

Gort na Mona fell 0-3 to 0-9 to the Kickham’s at Enright Park and were unable to field for the away fixture owing to Covid in the Gort’s camp.

Creggan went on to defeat St. John’s by 1-8 to 0-8 at Hightown in the quarter-final before coming strong in the second half to beat a fancied Cargin in the semi-final.

In both games the Staffordstown Road side have shown great resilience rather than being spectacular but these wins will surely have cemented their belief that their name is on this year’s championship cup.

Aghagallon’s path through group 3 was a much more precarious journey. They travelled to Lamh Dhearg for their opening game and lost by a point in a high scoring and very entertaining encounter.

Wins at home to Aldergrove and a very important away win to St. Enda’s put them right back in the frame but defeat to the Hannastown side at Pairc Na Gael on day four seemed to have put their chances of qualification very much in jeopardy.

An away win to Aldergrove left the final game between Aghagallon and St. Enda’s, a winner takes all affair and in another tight encounter St. Mary’s emerged as two point winners to qualify in second place to Lamh Dhearg and set up a quarter-final meeting with St. Brigid’s.

Second half goals from Ruairi McCann and Eunan Walsh were enough to see St. Mary’s through to a first semi-final and Walsh was again the man on target as Aghagallon emerged victorious in a well-documented marathon semi-final over Portglenone.

So Creggan will probably start tomorrow’s final as the bookies favourites and logic dictates that their greater experience and superior physicality will be enough to get them over the line.

Those two recent final defeats to Cargin adds weight to the notion that ‘you have to lose one to win one’ but Aghagallon have shown an ability to plunder goals throughout the championship and if Eunan Walsh, Ruairi McCann and Gareth Magee are on top of their game and if Adam Loughran is fit to start then St. Mary’s won’t be too far away.

For the wearing of the green. Aghagallon Primary Schools wear their colours

Championship fever has hit Aghagallon this week with the place going slightly mad in the build up to Sunday’s final. The two local prirmary schools St Patrick’s Aghagallon and St Mary’s Derrymore joined in the fun and on Friday everyone wore green in support of thier heroes who will contest the Antrim Senior Football Championship final for the very first time.

Bert Trowlen went along for the Saffron Gael to capture another piece of history.

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.”

Murray insists Aghagallon must be at their best

By Kevin Herron 

Aghagallon manager Kevin Murray insists his side aren’t going into Sundays Northern Switchgear Antrim Senior Football Championship final blinded.

It is the clubs first ever senior football decider in their 114-year history in comparison to Creggan who have made the decider on six occasions previous to the weekend. 

Their most recent was last year’s three-point defeat to Cargin after extra-time and the duo alsomeet in the 2018 final. 

Murray highlights their experience and is under no illusions that his side will need to be at their best to overcome the Staffordstown Road outfit. 

“We’re not going into this blind, we know that Creggan are a top, top team” acknowledges Murray. 

“They’ve proven that in the last number of years, they’ve a lot of talent and they’ve been here before in finals. They’ve been in quite a considerable number of finals, and they’ve played on the big occasions- so we know that we’re going to be at our best. 

“Games can take a direction of themselves, as was the case with the Portglenone game. They’ll have their homework done, we’ll we have it done and it’s about the performance on the day. It’s going to be the big thing and we’re going to focus on that really”. 

Murray believes that their semi-final victory over Portglenone was a big step forward for the group. 

The Aghagallon boss had had sympathy with Portglenone- who decided against appealing the outcome of the game after regulations dictated the semi-final shouldn’t have went to an additional period of extra-time- but was pleased that the outcome stood and common sense prevailed. 

“Getting through that game was a big step forward for this group” Murray admits. 

“The fact that it went to extra, extra time was challenging in itself and the big focus has just been on getting everyone reset, focused, looking forward to the final as well, trying to tidy up injuries has been the key thing this week”. 

“It was out of our control, Portglenone are a main club and a very successful club and everything that went around that probably wasn’t fair from their end of things. But its water under the bridge now and I think what was agreed on the pitch stayed on the pitch. I think it’s the way forward and thankfully it worked out and there was a bit of sense around it all”. 

Murray has experienced the big occasion as a player and coach with his native Lámh Dhearg down the years and outlined the big difference between preparing as a player and coach. 

“I suppose when you’re playing, you’re only trying to focus on your job and what you have to do for the team” he reflects. 

“You’re trying to get yourself physically and mentally prepared for what you need to do. As a coach and a manager, through Lámh Dhearg and Aghagallon; you’ve a lot more to think about. Your job is to prepare the whole team and have a structure around how you want to play and make sure that every individual player knows what their role is. You’ve the whole hype around finals as well, some players adapt to it pretty well and some players don’t. it’s looking at what works and what gets the best out of each individual player”. 

There as nine Aghagallon players on the St Ronan’s panel when the Lurgan school won the MacCrory Cup back in 2018 and five of them will feature for their club on Sunday against Creggan.

Five of the Aghagallon players that will hope to feature in Sundays final have already been part of huge occasions down the years. 

In 2018 Luke Mulholland, Jamie Lamont, Jack Lenehan, Mark McAfee and Adam Loughran were all part of the St Ronan’s squad that lifted the MacRory and Hogan Cup and Murray will hope their experience will stand by them. 

“That group of players have been talked about for a good few years now” Murray recalls. 

“What the club have put into the effort of underage structure is – for me coming in as an outsider- I’ve seen that and it’s not easy. The transition, as most clubs know- it’s not easy and good underage players and good schools don’t naturally migrate into senior players. 

“There has been a fair bit of effort put into the senior set-up in the last few years. Getting the balance with issues around lifestyle, technical side of the game, mental side of the game and the physical conditioning side that have all been big factors. That’s what we’ve tried to focus on in the last number of years”. 

Murray admits he hasn’t been around the village much in the build-up, but is reliably informed that the buzz created by minor football and U-15 success is carrying over to the seniors. 

“I haven’t been around the village too much myself” Murray revealed. 

 “But club people have been telling me that they’re building on the minor squad doing well and the U-15 doing well” There is certainly a good buzz around and I know that the club generally will get behind this group and the players as well”. 

Corrigan Park will play host to the final and as much as Murray is delighted with the facilities and praised officials at St Johns for showcasing the hurling final and this week’s game, he believes Casement should always play host and has called on better floodlit facilities within Belfast to play host to future Championship games. 

“I was at the hurling final and there was good buzz about it” recalls Murray. 

“St Johns done a great job and I’m sure they’ll do another great job on Sunday. My personal opinion is that the game should be played at Casement, I would have preferred to see more Antrim championship games played under lights in Belfast. In terms of young people having access to see that in the evenings and obviously in terms of fixtures as well. 

“However, we are where we are with Casement and everyone knows about that. There is a severe lack on floodlit provision in Belfast, but to be fair St Johns have stepped in there and they’ve done a smashing job in county matches I’ve been at and I’m sure the club are looking forward to hosting the football final this weekend”. 

Build up to Sunday’s SFC Final continues

Yesterday we took a brief look at the football history of St. Mary’s Aghagallon and their journey to a first Antrim SFC Final. Today we take a look at Sunday’s opponents, Kickham’s Creggan and their football history.

Later in the week we will take a look at both sides in depth as we preview this eagerly awaited final. We hope to speak to both managers in the build up to that final and, of course we will be there on the day to bring you coverage of the big game.

Kickhams GAC Creggan – a brief Football History

Kickhams GAC Creggan was established in 1924. The main driving force behind the setting up of the club was Jimmy Kelly, the local blacksmith and Pádraig Mac Con Midhe (Paddy McNamee) the local schoolmaster who went on to be president of the GAA on two occasions. The club grew throughout the 1920’s fielding hurling and football teams in the South West and Belfast leagues.

The 1940’s and 1950’s and into the early 1960’s were a period when Creggan footballers competed strongly with the best teams in County Antrim and Derry. The first major success came when the team won the Antrim Senior Championship defeating O’Donnells after a replay in 1943. The remainder of the forties and fifties saw Creggan compete strongly in the senior league and championship. With the early fifties a crop of new young players were emerging backboned by the Totten, Bateson and Coogan families. Patsy Totten and Joe Bateson in particular were excellent players who were regulars for Antrim in their day. Patsy won an Ulster minor medal and an Ulster Senior medal with Antrim in 1950 and 1951 respectively. A second Senior Championship success arrived in 1954 when Creggan defeated St John’s by two points in Casement Park.

The late fifties and early 1960’s was an era when ‘carnival’ football was very much to the fore with huge crowds attending. Creggan were frequently in action in County Derry where they defeated leading sides like Bellaghy, Ballinderry and Desertmartin in epic encounters. The next senior success in Antrim came in capturing the Antrim Senior league title in 1960 and 1961.

In 1977 Creggan footballers, although playing in Division 2, reached the final of the Antrim Senior Football Championship only to be narrowly beaten by a strong St John’s side. Throughout the1980s and 1990s, Creggan played their football mainly in Division 2. The pattern continued with some successes such as lifting the Antrim Intermediate Championship in 1997 and 1999.

 Early in the new millennium football took a huge step forward when the senior team was promoted to Division 1 of the Antrim league in which they have since proved to be one of the strongest teams.

As the new millennium progressed the club enjoyed unprecedented success in under age football. As well as a range of juvenile titles gained by the club, the minor footballers won the Antrim title in 2008 and 2009 while the under 21s won the Antrim title in 2009 and 2011, a record of achievement which was unprecedented at under age level in the club. The most recent major success in football came when Creggan won the Antrim Senior league in 2018, while seven players from the club won Mac Rory Cup medals

Hurling came once again to the fore in 2014 and this time in spectacular fashion. The hard work of club stalwarts such as Thomas McCann, Danny and Seamus Dougan and Niall Robb was rewarded by winning the Antrim Junior Hurling title. They then embarked on an amazing journey winning the Ulster Junior title and finally the All-Ireland Junior title in a replay against Waterford’s Ballysaggart with whom they had drawn in Croke Park. Inspired by this success the team then won the Antrim Intermediate Championship the following year, following this up with an Ulster title and were narrowly beaten by Galway champions Abbeyknockmoy in the All-Ireland semi – final. Recently the club was honoured to have Conor McCann as the captain of the Antrim Senior team, the first time such an honour has been given to a player from the South West.

Many of those involved in Creggan’s hurling success, including Conor McCann feature on the football side and the Kickham’s can rightly be regarded as a very successful dual club and later in the week we will look at those players and the part they have played in reaching Sunday’s final against Aghagallon.