Hard work key for McAuley as Naomh Éanna prepare for an Spidéal test

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.

2018 pictorial review – April

A look back at some of my favourite photos from last season. Its slow, but we will get there before 2019 is out.

St. Enda’s one step away from All Ireland final place

All Ireland Intermediate Football club semi-final

St. Enda’s (Antrim) v An Spideal (Galway)

The hard work has been done, nothing left to chance and now it’s down to 60 plus minutes of hard work at Pairc Tailteann and a meeting with Galway and Connaught champions, An Spideal who stand between the Antrim champions and a place in the All Ireland Intermediate club final.

Following their Ulster success back at the beginning of December Frank Fitzsimmons and his backroom team of Pat Hughes and Thomas McNulty have kept their side busy as they have tried to manage the long period between Ulster success and Sunday’s game and they have had them down to the beach at Waterfoot for a number of training sessions just to freshen things up.

The Glengormley club spent a weekend in Donegal recently where they played a challenge game against Gaoth Dobhair and ‘Fitsy’ was pleased at the level of performance against the Ulster Senior club champions.

St. Enda’s also played a challenge against Queen’s last week and the side are in rude health by all accounts and looking forward to the challenge that An Spideal are likely to pose on Sunday.

HOW THEY GOT THERE

A first county Intermediate title followed by a historic victory on the Provincial trail and the show goes on as they turn their attentions to Sunday and an All Ireland semi-final appointment with An Spideal and a visit to Pairc Tailteann.

The Antrim champions will line out against their counterparts from Galway at Navan and who would bet against Frank Fitzsimmons’s charges continuing on their amazing journey.

The Hightown club having recruited Frank Fitzsimmons and Pat Hughes to take charge of their squad gained ultimate reward and after a fair league campaign and a far from impressive win over St Paul’s in the opening round of the Antrim championship the Hightown men set off on their unforgettable championship journey.

Fitzsimmons with a youthful panel at his disposal backboned by the minor champions of a couple of years earlier had little difficulty in dealing with Michael Davitt’s on a 5-17 to 0-07 scoreline next time out and their journey was gaining momentum.

Gort na Mona were catching the eye on the other side of the draw, and when they made the Intermediate decider with a 2-09 to 0-13 win over All Saint’s and St Enda’s defeated Moneyglass 2-10 to 1-04 in the other semi-final the scene was set for what many predicted would be the Hightown men’s toughest test to date.

The Intermediate final was, as anticipated a close affair but St Enda’s showed that little bit of extra class securing the tile on a 0-15 to 1-07 verdict to open the door to Ulster for the first time in their history.

Monaghan representatives Doohamalet were their opponents as they returned to Corrigan Park, scene of their first ever Antrim win so they were back on familiar ground but cast as outsiders.

The Hightown men were well prepared for their Ulster debut and an early Kristian Healy goal led to a 1-07 to 1-02 interval advantage but the experienced Farney men came back strongly in the second half.

St Enda’s finished strongly however and a 52nd minute Ruairi Scott fisted major saw them over the winning line and into the semi-final and a meeting with Tyrone champions Tattyreagh.

The Red Hand champions had proved too strong for St Peter’s of Armagh in their quarter-final and assumed the role of favourites but St. Enda’s were unfazed.

A late James Darcy goal looked to have handed the initiative to the Tyrone champions but in a dramatic last few minutes it was late replacement Michael Morgan’s contribution which clinched the verdict for the Antrim men.

Morgan was sent into the fray in place of Ethan Gibson who had received a black card and when sent away by Odhran Eastwood the former clipped the leather between to posts to see St Enda’s move ahead. Morgan followed with another shortly after and the Hightown men were on their way to an Ulster final.

Cavan representatives Mullahoran provided the opposition for the history seeking St Enda’s in the final as the Hightown men sought to be the first team from the Saffron County to claim an Ulster Intermediate football title and this was to prove another close affair with the result in doubt right to conclusion.

The pivotal moment arrived with around seven minutes on the clock and only a point between the sides when Cormac O’Reilly’s rasper evaded the hands of the St Enda’s net minder Paddy Flood only to find the crossbar and when the clearance reached Joe Maskey the mid-fielder raced away to plant the leather in the net at the other end.

The Antrim champs had done enough and when the long blast arrived they held a 2-11 to 1-10 advantage and a first Provincial Intermediate title was theirs.

                                                    WHO WILL PLAY

At the time of writing no team has been announced but is unlikely to show too many changes from the one that defeated Mullahoran in the Ulster decider. Paddy Flood has been a constant in the St. Enda’s goals and Michael McNamee and James McAuley are likely to be the anchor men in a St. Enda’s defence who have conceded little on their journey to date.

Joe Maskey was a colossus at mid-field against the Cavan men and has been outstanding all year while in attack the Hightown side have a rich array of talent.

Peter Healy and his brother Kristian, Odhran Eastwood, Ruairi Scott, Ethan Gibson and Eoin Nagle are all potential match winners on their day and if they click as a unit then they are capable of presenting the An Spideal defence with a headache.

The action gets under way at 2.00 in Navan and the Saffron Gael will be there to cover the game and I’m predicting another St. Enda’s victory and a place in the final for Frank Fitzsimmon’s side.

Naomh Éanna v Mullahoran: Paddy Flood; Killian Jennings, Mick McNamee, Diarmuid McNulty; Conan Lyttle, James McAuley, Conor McAuley; Ryan Kennedy, Joe Maskey; Peter Healy, Ruairi Scott, Kristian Healy; Ethan Gibson, Odhran Eastwood, Eoin Nagle.

Subs: Ciaran O’Neill for R Kennedy (26); Damien Gault for E Gibson (60)

Scorers for Naomh Éanna: Odhran Eastwood 0-4 (3 f’s); Kristian Healy 1-1; Eoin Nagle 0-3; Joe Maskey 1-00; Ruairi Scott 0-2; Conan Lyttle 0-1

Antrim Gaels honoured at the Gaelic Life All Star Gala

The Eighth annual Gaelic Life Club All-Stars event took place on Friday night in the Hillgrove Hotel in Monaghan and a massive haul of awards going to Antrim players.

The prestigious event celebrates the very best athletes from the GAA. RTE’s Darragh Maloney was MC on the night and he entertained the crowd of almost 500 people who turned up to applaud the very best players from the 2018 season.

The biggest award of the night went to Neil McManus of Ruairi Og Cushendall, who was named hurler of the year.

St Gall’s hurling manager Mickey Culbert was named hurling manager of the year after his team won the Ulster Intermediate Championship.

He edged out Cushendall manager Eamon Gillan in this category.

Cushendun’s Conor McHugh was up for the Young Hurler award, but missed out to Ballycran’s Phelim Savage.

St Enda’s Joe Maskey was in the running for young footballer of the year, but that award went to Odhran McFadden Ferry of Ulster Senior champions Gaoth Dobhair.

Likewise, Frank Fitzsimons nominated for football manager of the year for his exploits with Naomh Eanna, but the award went to Gaoth Dobhair manager Mervyn O’Donnell.

Three Naomh Eanna men received their football team of the year awards: Joe Maskey, Peter Healy and Eoin Nagle while three Loughgiel players were on the Camogie team of the year: Maria Lynn, Amy Boyle and Roisin McCormick

Six Cushendall players were named on hurling team of the year: Eoin Gillan, Paddy Burke, Sean Delargy, Arron Graffin, Neil McManus and Donal McNaughton while there were two from St Gall’s Intermediate championship winning side, CJ McGourty and Joe McDaniel.

There will be a 24-page pull out of reaction and pictures from this brillaint event in Thursday’s Gaelic Life.

Many thanks to Ronan Scott of Gaelic Life for his assistance and support*