GAVIN Conwell knows a thing or two about winning Championships, Intermediate Championships in particular.
Michael Wilson reports
The Craigbane stalwart was an integral part of the club’s 2000 success over Newbridge, a victory which incidentally propelled the club on to become Ulster’s first Intermediate Club champions in 2001. Five Derry titles had preceded that historic game against Inniskeen.
The ‘Lily Whites’ it seemed were set for further success and the challenge of establishing themselves on the Derry senior scene. Except it never really happened, despite no shortage of talent.
A decade has now passed without silverware but the desire that burned brightly against the Monaghan champions in 2001 remains undiminished, something the now 34-year old forward-turned-midfielder is hoping can tip the balance tomorrow in Ballymaguigan.
“2001 was one of the best experiences I’ve had playing football,” explains Conwell, “The whole thing around the games, the craic on the buses. You’d be serious about the game but when it was over, you had your beer and we had some great craic.
“At the start of 2000, we knew it was the first year of the Ulster Intermediate championship and we set out to try and win it. Thank God we went on to do it and when you meet those boys now, the chat is always about what we might have done if there had been an All-Ireland series at that time.”
It is difficult to argue with the premise that an All-Ireland title was theirs for the taking but the increasing threat of emigration has hit the club hard in recent years and goes some way to explaining the trophy drought.
While Conwell, Damien McLaughlin, Martin McGinty and Cathal O’Kane still remain from the victory over Newbridge, others have been lost to economic circumstance. The likes of Lee Moore and Aidy McLaughlin have stepped up to the plate and the future again looks bright with the club set for the League play-offs and the potential of promotion.
That’s for another day though as the focus, according to their captain, remains firmly on the considerable obstacle of Artie Kearney’s Swatragh team. An Intermediate side in name only according to Conwell.
“We do have a bit of experience but I don’t think that’s what it will come down to against Swatragh. It’ll come down to the team that wants it the most. This is what it always boils down to.
“Swatragh are a senior team that have been down for one year. It took them a while to find their feet but now they’re in a championship final, at the top of the league and they’ve shown they’re still really a senior team.”
For the final, Kevin Moore’s men face something of a role reversal from their epic semi-final victory over a Drumsurn side they had taken apart in the league only weeks before. Going into that game as odd-on favourites, Craigbane conceded three goals inside the first 10 minutes, were seven adrift at half-time and staring another year of Championship frustration in the face. Step forward Kieran McElhinney who, at 43, has been part of every Craigbane success since it’s first Intermediate win in 1986. When someone with that resumé speaks, people listen.
“Drumsurn caught us on the hop at the start, they got three early goals but we didn’t panic,” adds Conwell, “We knew if we kept plugging away, it would come. Remember, if Drumsurn were able to keep everyone at home training and playing every weekend, they’d give Intermediate football a real rattle.
“In that semi-final, Kieran was one of the boys who did the talking at half-time. He told the boys we’d been seven points down in Championship games before and won. That just gave boys confidence to hear him saying it.”
It is a nice blend of youth and experience but as, Conwell explains, it is not always the old heads who are the ones leading by example
“The way Lee (Moore) and Aidy (McLaughlin) look after themselves is a credit to them both. They train on their own before or after every training session. Lee’s maybe picked that up off the Coleraine boys out at Owenbeg, and it’s definitely had an influence. The young boys and even the older boys look up to him for the way he looks after himself, the way he prepares himself for games and training.”
If preparation is the key to success, Swatragh have been warned.