AFTER THE Championship quarter-finals in Derry, the general feeling was that Ballinderry would eat the pick of what's left.
When the final whistle sounded in their quarter-final annihilation of Kilrea ( 3-16 to 1-7) a mate of mine from Dungiven suggested they would beat most county teams, and it is hard to disagree.
In the early part of the season when Derry were struggling badly, I was going to ring Paddy Crozier and suggest he simply put out the Ballinderry team. It could be our default position. Whenever the county team goes into a bit of a slump, bring in the Ballinderry XV and give the county squad a chance to regroup.
The success of their senior teams is down to a number of factors. Gaelic football is the only game - there are no distractions. It's not so much that the hurls have been burnt, more that the hurls never existed. As for soccer, there isn't a house within a three mile radius of the pitch that has a picture of Packie Bonner or Glasgow Celtic on the wall.
In Ballinderry, there is only one religion. Currently, they have a reserve team that would beat most senior teams in the country. Think I'm exaggerating? When they won the Derry Reserve Championship a few weeks ago, they had seven All-Ireland club medallists in the 15, including three former county players. All still in their twenties, they are simply no longer able to get onto the seniors. To that seven you can add Gavin McGeechan, the undisputed star of the Derry Minors. They tell me 'big' Enda Muldoon goes to all their games and more often than not, ends up umpiring. For some reason that pleases me greatly.
What is most striking about this amazing place is their sense of community. I am related to the McGuckins, one of the handful of families that backbone the place and I recall as a child going down to Ballinderry.
When they brought in the hay, the neighbours rowed in, like the Amish. In the McGuckins home place, the only thing discussed was football and each person was valued according to the way they played the game. When you go to Ballinderry to play them, there's always a big, knowledgeable crowd. The home team always go at it as though it were a Championship final and they generally have about 20 subs.
They invariably give you a good hiding and afterwards they put on a good spread in the clubhouse, with the women fussing around pouring tea and doling out sandwiches (except for Lavey). As I said once at a Ballinderry dinner dance, they might beat the shite out of you, but at least they have the decency to give you tea and buns afterwards! Everybody laughed, because they knew it was true, and they were proud of it.
The most important component of their great success is the incessant work. Coaching at all levels is state of the art. If an opening comes up for one of their juvenile teams, there is a queue of clubmen looking for the job. This conveyor belt is very carefully monitored.
Their U-14s played a good Dungiven team in last year's county final and it was like the Harlem Globetrotters against the white men. Their skill level, organisation and discipline paid testament to the excellence of their coaching.
The people of the parish have an encyclopaedic knowledge of football in the county. Fergal McCusker told me a story once that is apt. He was down at a wake in Bellaghy, a club with very similar values, and the chat turned to promising footballers in the county. Not one name mentioned was familiar to him, until the penny dropped and he realised they were talking about under-14s!
Ballinderry is not only a centre of excellence for footballers, it is also turning out managers. Brian McIver needs no introduction. Niall Conway, older brother of county midfielder James, was this year's Derry Minor boss, expertly guiding them to the final. The best compliment I could pay the team was that they played like Ballinderry. Better still, they were blended from players all over the county, including from obscure clubs such as Steelstown (three), Coleraine, Craigbane etc.
Dungiven walloped Loup in an atrocious quarter-final a few weeks ago.
At the final whistle, the only people left were the Dungiven ones and the Ballinderry senior squad, watching intently and storing it in the memory banks. They have had a deputation at all of Crossmaglen's games in the Armagh Championship, including the first round, which I think you'll agree tells us quite a lot about this club and its ambitions.
They are one of the great communities of Ireland, a classic illustration that this can only be achieved by self help, and implementing and maintaining the highest standards. It is easy to feel envious, but you can't deny they do your heart good. Just wait till Dungiven get at them in the Championship . . .
Finally, the legendary mime artist Marcel Marceau died this week. I understand the French government has announced a special tribute will take place in Paris this Sunday.
At noon, there is going to be a minute's noise . . .