Cumann Lúthchleas Gael Uladh

St Mary’s hoping to bring their ‘A’ game to the MacRory Cup

November 3rd, 2016

THE MacRory Cup and Antrim have never been bedfellows.

And that’s been a big part of Antrim’s problem. It’s a familiar refrain: there aren’t enough Antrim colleges playing ‘A’ grade football.

You reap what you sow.

You could write a thesis on Antrim’s woes and where the Saffron road fractures.

It’s a subject beyond the scope of this interview and indeed St Mary’s CBS, Belfast who make their return to MacRory Cup football this season.

“Seven or eight years ago we reached the MacRory Cup semi-finals, when we should have got to the final,” recalls St Mary’s coach and school bursar Donagh Finnegan.

“We missed a last-minute penalty to put us through against Omagh CBS. How many of those guys are playing county football now?

“Declan Lynch of Lamh Dhearg is, Mickey Armstrong played county football and hurling.

“That was a very good side we had and yet they haven’t moved on to senior county football. I don’t know why.

“Now, there’s no question soccer is an issue…”

Finnegan, naturally, is concerned with the students of St Mary’s and how they adapt to the thinner air of MacRory Cup football rather than the structural ills of Antrim.

“We have players on this team that should be playing senior county football, without question,” Finnegan adds.

“But I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t see it as our job. We’re trying to compete at the highest level we can and we do think it’s important for Antrim, as it’s better for our clubs.

“We do want to build a partnership with Antrim and we’re doing a bit at Year Eight now. But we can’t answer Antrim’s problems…

“Young GAA players in Antrim have no role models or anything to strive for. If there is a call between GAA or soccer a lot drift to soccer. Casement Park will give Antrim teams a focus and give the kids something to strive for.

“A provincial stadium of 34,500 in the middle of west Belfast with the delivery of the promised underage development plan and associated coaching is a game-changer.”

But, back to St Mary’s and their MacRory Cup return. Why now?

For Finnegan, the reasoning is simple.

Finnegan and Paddy Linden feel they have a team worthy of competing in this season’s elite competition.

“I’ve been with this team since second year and we played the ‘B’ competition called the Corn Colmcille and we won it.

“We beat Keady in the final. The rule then was if you won a ‘B’ competition you moved into the ‘A’, and we did compete well in ‘A’ – we never actually won anything [apart from Corn Colmcille] but we’ve competed, and that’s what we wanted to do.

“Paddy Linden, who coaches Collegeland in Armagh, was taking the team a year behind me and they’ve competed well too, so we’re hoping we’re going to do the same in the MacRory Cup.

“If we think a team is good enough to compete we will move up.”

The Glen Road school’s last MacRory Cup success came in 1986 when Conal Heatley captained the side, putting the brakes on St Patrick’s Maghera’s pursuit of five-in-a-row.

Their only other MacRory Cup triumph came in 1971 and that side went on to annex the Hogan Cup.

Since the 2000s, the west Belfast college have flitted in and out of the competition.

They’ve held their own in the Dalton, Brock, Rannafast Cups, while last year they exited the McLarnon Cup at the quarter-final stages to eventual winners Patrician, Carrickmacross.

Patrician will also dip their toe in MacRory Cup waters this season.

The draw for the group stages couldn’t have been much tougher for St Mary’s: St Patrick’s Armagh, St Patrick’s Maghera and St Michael’s, Enniskillen make up their pre-Christmas programme.

“It’s not easy,” says Finnegan. “But there are no easy matches in MacRory. Hopefully they’ll see us as an easy match!”

Due to St Mary’s being a dual school, with their hurlers annexing the Mageean Cup final last Wednesday, their MacRory Cup campaign won’t begin until after Halloween, which Finnegan describes as a “big help”.

There are roughly 18 hurlers that will join the football squad ahead of their first MacRory Cup tie against St Patrick’s Maghera.

The school draws the majority of their players from St Paul’s, St Gall’s, St John’s, O’Donovan Rossa, Aldergrove, Gort na Mona, Davitt’s and St Agnes.

Paddy Doyle (St Paul’s), Eoghan McCabe (St Gall’s), John McCaffrey (St Agnes) and Declan Smith (Davitt’s) are just some of the names cutting a dash for St Mary’s this year.

“The McLarnon Cup is a fantastic competition,” says Finnegan, who won three county titles with St Paul’s, Belfast in the 90s.

“We lost in last year’s quarter-finals to the winners – Patrician, Carrickmacross – and it was a game that got away.

“But, no doubt, there’s an extra buzz when it comes to the MacRory.

“Our aim is to be playing after Christmas. That’s when we’d have a bit of time to concentrate on the football.

“The hurling is fantastic for the school and has been our showcase for many years. But, if we get a run after Christmas, all bets are off, as I keep telling the boys.”

Young Odhran McKenna, who almost lost his life due to a serious traffic accident, has made a remarkable recovery over the last eight months.

“Odhran has played centre half-back from first year with this team,” says Finnegan. “Hopefully he will be able to contribute something as the campaign develops.”

By BRENDAN CROSSAN  Published in the Irish News

Sign up now to get the latest from Ulster GAA