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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.

WHAT ABOUT ORANMORE/MAREE?

All Ireland Intermediate Club Championship semi-final

St. Gall’s (Antrim) v Aronmore/Maree (Galway)

Parnell Park (2.00)

Having conquered Ulster the task doesn’t get any easier for Antrim champions, St. Gall’s as they head to Parnell Park on Sunday to face Oranmore/Maree of Galway. Aronmore/Maree have been regarded as under achievers in Galway for some time but they put that notion to bed with a comprehensive win over Kilconieron in the Galway final.

They had nine points to spare over Rahoon/Newcastle in the semi-final and clearly carry a big scoring threat. Big players stand up on the big days and they don’t come much bigger than Gearoid McInerney and Niall Burke, the two Galway men heavily influential for Oranmore/Maree who impressed in every sector of the field.

Eight minutes in they led 0-6 to 0-0 as Rahoon/Newcastle struggled desperately to get to the pitch of the action. Niall Burke fired his side’s first three scores, a one-handed point from play sandwiched between two frees before Ross Malone fired over a simple score to make it four.

Credit to Rahoon/Newcastle who fought back in both halves but in truth that was more down to Oranmore/Maree taking their foot off the gas with John Burke and Gerry McInerney’s men showing exactly why they are favourites to earn promotion to senior ranks.

GALWAY FINAL REPORT COURTESY CONNAUGHT TRIBUNE

Oranmore/Maree show little mercy in clear cut final win

Oranmore/Maree 3-19

Kilconieron 1-11

WE are baffled no more. Oranmore/Maree hurlers finally shattered their reputation as under-achievers when crushing surprise packets Kilconieron in a one-sided Galway Intermediate showdown at Duggan Park on Saturday.

It had been perplexing why a club with access to a rising sporting population, led by two Galway senior players and with plenty of quality back up talent, remained marooned in the intermediate ranks. Well, Oranmore/Maree’s day of liberation has at last arrived.

Though appearing in their first county final since losing narrowly to Kiltormer in 2001, Oranmore/Maree had been knocking on the door to achieving a breakthrough over recent seasons and you could see that they had the potential to compete at a higher level. But this had been said about them before, leaving their team with still plenty to prove in 2018.

With a high-profile team management – led by former Galway star Gerry McInerney – put in place last winter, it was clear that Oranmore/Maree, tired of their ‘nearly men’ status, were going to leave nothing to chance this year and, as it transpired, they proved a cut above the rest throughout the campaign.

Coming into a county final burdened with the mantle of strong favourites brings additional pressure, but Oranmore/Maree thrived in this environment on Saturday as they flew out of the starting blocks in romping to a 14-point victory over a Kilconieron outfit which was beaten all over the field.

Though every team is entitled to bouts of wishful thinking, even some of their own supporters wouldn’t have expected Kilconieron to reach the final. Their achievement was in getting so far, but this was one challenge too many for their largely young squad although they should benefit from the experience, tough as it was.

Trailing by 1-5 to 0-2 after just 10 minutes, Kilconieron were already on the backfoot as they struggled to cope with Oranmore/Maree’s greater athleticism, intensity and quality. Their defence was under pressure from the off while, at the other end of the field, only one of their starting forwards managed to find the mark from play.

In contrast, Oranmore/ Maree had no shortage of scoring options and if impressive duo, Niall Burke and Sean McInerney, did most of the damage, they had plenty of support in Alan Burke, who wasted no time in getting to the pitch of the battle, Padraic Keane and Ross Malone. Overall, they performed to a higher standard, with hardly a weak link in their ranks.

REPORT COURTESY OF CONNAUGHT TRIBUNE

Connaught final

Oranmore/Maree 1-20

Tooreen (Mayo) 1-15

THIS Connacht intermediate club hurling final showdown may not fall under the heading of epic,. but what Oranmore/Maree and defending provincial champions Tooreen served up in this thoroughly entertaining decider in Athleague on Saturday was nothing short of absorbing from start to finish.

To synopsis, Oranmore/Maree started like a bullet train racing through Continental Europe before Tooreen uprooted the tracks to derail the Galway holders’ efforts. The fare was tough, physical and uncompromising and this was reflected in Tooreen being reduced to 13 men by the close of business.

And yet, despite their numerical advantage, Oranmore/Maree had it all to do against a driven Tooreen outfit that were only outscored by a single point in the second period. The hunger and will to win they showed was a credit to the 2017 Connacht champions’ commitment and ambition.

However, nothing should be taken from Oranmore/Maree who led from the outset of this contest. To the fore in this respect was Galway’s Niall Burke as he concluded the day with 1-10 to his name, 1-5 from play. Ross Malone, who was on fire in the opening half, and Alan Burke also contributed three points apiece while Sean McInerney hit two.

Indeed, where Tooreen, trained by Galway’s Nigel Shaughnessy, relied on the free-taking of Shane Boland and Sean Kenny, Oranmore/Maree were better at generating their scores from play, despite the Mayo champions deploying a sweeper – even when they went down to 14 men.

The crucial score from the victors’ point of view though was in first half-injury time when defender Alan Bannon found Malone and, while his shot for potentially his fourth point from play fell short, the in-rushing Niall Burke was on hand to flick the sliotar to the net to give his side a 1-9 to 0-8 interval lead.

Had that goal not manifested itself, it could have been a very different Oranmore/Maree dressing-room at half-time, particularly after they allowed a five-point eighth minute advantage to slip when Tooreen remarkably drew level at 0-8 apiece just before the break.

Tooreen, the Mayo and reigning Connaught champions certainly put it up to the Galway men despite going down to 13 men before running out of steam and losing by five but that performance shows that Oranmore/Maree are not unbeatable and if St. Gall’s can bring their A game to the table on Sunday then they won’t be far away.

Oranmore/Maree joint captains, Niall Burke and Gearóid McInerney, raise the Connacht Intermediate Cup aloft after defeating Toureen of Mayo in the provincial decider in Athleague on Saturday. Photos: Brian Harding.

St. Gall’s hoping to make it an Ulster double for Antrim sides on Sunday

Both of the county’s intermediate champions, hurling and football, are in action on Sunday, January 20. Oranmore /Maree travel to Parnell Park, Dublin to face Ulster holders St. Gall’s while An Spidéal also face Antrim opposition, Naomh Éanna, in their penultimate tie in Navan on the same day.

Both games throw in at 2pm on January 20 and we could be looking at an unprecedented Antrim-Ulster double with the All-Ireland intermediate finals in the respective codes to take place at Croke Park on the weekend of February 9-10.

St. Gall’s face a stiff test as they head to Parnell Park on Sunday to face Oranmore/Maree of Galway but it is a game that they are capable of winning and under the guidance of Mickey Culbert the Milltown side certainly will not be making the journey to Dublin just to make up the numbers.

After a poor start to the Antrim division 2 league this year the Belfast outfit have shown steady improvement as the season progressed culminating in Antrim and Ulster championship success.

A storming finish to the league saw St. Gall’s climb the table to finish second to a strong Ballycastle side but it was in the championship that they really came to life. They began that championship campaign with victory over city rivals, Gort na Mona in a bad tempered encounter at Corrigan at the end of August which saw them emerge with five points to spare.

Five days later they took on Oisin’s on a Friday night under the floodlights at Quinn Park, Ballymena and certainly didn’t get it all their own way during a very competitive first half. St. Gall’s found something extra however in the second half to run out winners by eight points and Mickey Culbert’s men were starting to show a bit of form.

They were drawn against St. Enda’s in the semi-final and repeated their league double success over the Glengormley side running out winners by six points to set up a meeting with surprise packets, Kickham’s Creggan in the final.

The Staffordstown Road side had played their hurling in division 3 of the ACH League and after a good run early in the year their form had dipped dramatically come the end of the season where they failed to gain promotion with Clooney Gaels and Cathaoir an Ri piping them for the promotion places.

Come the championship however and the return of key players Kickham’s hit a rich vein of form which resulted in them beating Armoy, Rasharkin and Cathaoir an Ri to reach the final and despite their division 3 status they certainly presented St. Gall’s with a formidable hurdle in the decider.

In a real thriller of an Antrim final St. Gall’s produced a strong second half performance to overcome the challenge of Kickham’s Creggan in a tough uncompromising Intermediate Hurling Championship final at a windy Hannastown. Playing with the breeze in the opening half, Kickham’s dominated the first half exchanges.

Creggan were to rue a number of bad misses in the opening half but still led by 0-10 to 0-4 by the 25th minute and looked to be heading to the dressing room with a fairly healthy lead. St. Gall’s had been on the back foot for a time but CJ McGourty landed a much needed free and when Jackson McGreevey got on the end of a Mark Napier cross in the 28th minute to finish to the net from close range the Milltown men were right back in contention but still trailed by four at the break.

During the second half St. Gall’s slowly wore down their opponents with CJ McGourty leading the way. They went on to win by two points in an excellent final which quite literally could have gone either way with CJ McGourty collecting the Saffron Gael man-of-the-match award.

It was now down to Ulster and a meeting with Fermanagh champions Lisbellaw and the Fermanagh side certainly put it up to the Antrim men but second half goals from Sean McAreavey and Mark Napier sealed the deal.

CJ McGourty led the way with 0-8 (4 frees) with Karl Stewart and Kieran McGourty amongst the St. Gall’s scorers as they ran out 2-19 to 1-16 winners to book a semi-final spot against Derry champions Swatragh at Owenbeg.

St. Gall’s looked in control against the Derry champions  at half-time as a Conor Burke’s goal helped them to a deserved 1-11 to 0-7 lead at the interval.

However, on the restart  Swatragh took the game to their opponents with five unanswered points with the brilliant Eoghan O’Kane proving a handful while Ruairi Convery was deadly accurate from the placed ball as they reeled in the Antrim champions.

O’Kane and Karl Stewart exchanged goals for their sides and a late major from Fintan McGurk looked to have sealed a dramatic one-point win for the Derry side, but Tomás Ó Ciarain’s late pointed free sent the game into time added on.

In extra-time, St Gall’s were the better side and a goal from CJ McGourty finally put the game beyond Swatragh after an absorbing 80-plus minutes of Championship hurling to set up a meeting with Keady of Armagh.

In the Ulster final St Galls claimed their first Ulster Intermediate Hurling title since 2009 with a 2-12 to 0-11 win over Keady, Lamh Dhearg at Pairc Esler. CJ McGourty hit the opening goal five minutes before the half-time break and despite losing Jackson McGreevy to a second yellow card inside the first ten minutes of the second-half, the Milltown side remained on the front foot and a second goal from substitute Sean McAreavey ensured the title would be heading to Milltown Row.

St. Gall’s carry a wealth of experience within their ranks and a number of this side are no strangers to appearance on the big stage and that experience could stand to them on Sunday. Joe McDaniel at full-back captains the side and the no nonsense defender will relish the challenge.

Sean Burke, Niall O’Neill and Justin McGreevey are all excellent defenders and Aodhan Gallagher has been outstanding in the sweeper role all year. Karl Stewart, Kieran McGourty and Tomas O’Ciaran add a wealth of experience and know how in attack but it is in CJ McGourty that the Milltown side could have a decisive edge.

McGourty has provided the vital scores in St. Gall’s journey through Antrim and Ulster, scoring an important one in extra time against Swatragh and again coming up trumps in the opening half against Keady with the goal that would ultimately see them through.

Mickey Culbert brings a wealth of experience of his own to the table having led St. Gall’s footballers to a lot of Antrim success and had a spell as Antrim football manager and he has brought that experience and knowhow to the Milltown hurlers.

He raised a few eyebrows in the Ulster final, replacing goalkeeper McGreevey at half time because he felt his replacement P McCaffrey could cause the Keady defence problems with his long puck outs and his assessment proved spot on.

Who will start in the number one jersey on Sunday remains to be seen but whatever side takes to the field are in with a fighting chance against an Oranmore/Maree side who were regarded as under achievers in Galway prior to this year’s impressive championship success.

The Galway men have a number of county panellists within their ranks and will certainly take some beating but if St Galls can get off to a good start and are firing on all cylinders then they are capable of making it through to the All-Ireland final in the second week of February.

St Galls v Keady: C McGreevy, S Morrison, J McDaniel, A Hannaway, N O’Neill, S Burke, J McGreevy (0-01)J Hopkins, C Stewart (0-01), C Burke, K McGourty (0-01), T O’Ciarain (0-03f), C McGourty (1-05,0-04f), A Gallagher, M Napier (0-01). Subs: S McAreavey (1-00) for M Napier, P McCaffrey for C McGreevy, A Healy for J Hopkins, M Donnelly for S Burke