MacLARNON CUP: St. Columb’s seek to bridge four year final gap against Holy Tinity

The Columb;'s College squad pictured before their MacLarnon Cup Quarter-final victory over Ballygawley.

The Columb;'s College squad pictured before their MacLarnon Cup Quarter-final victory over Ballygawley.

Mac Larnon Cup Semi-final

St. Columb’s College, Derry v Holy Trinity, Cookstown (Friday, Drumragh GAC, 3.00pm)

St. Columb’s College coach Eamon Burns believes the introduction of former vocational schools has made the MacLarnon Cup even more competitive as the Derry school bids to bridge a gap of 14 years to its last success in 2002.

While we possibly wouldn’t be favourites with a lot of people that’s not to say we are not confident. Remember Ballygawley went in as favourites against us in the last round and we deserved that victory.

St. Columb’s coach, Eamon Burns

All Ireland winner Burns, who has been teaching at St. Columb’s since 1998, takes his team to Drumragh GAC’s Clanabogan Park outside Omagh on Friday to face Holy Trinity College, Cookstown in the school’s first semi-final for four years.

The College were impressive quarter-final winners against St. Ciaran’s, Ballygawley but know all about the dangers posed by the former voctional schools having lost out to St. Paul’s Bessbrook in the 20012 final, a disappointment which still wrangles with Burns.

“It’s too long since we won the MacLarnon Cup,” admitted Burns, “It is about time we started getting back into finals and trying to win trophies but it is a difficult competition to win. We haven’t won the MacLarnon since 2002 and 14 years is a long time. It was 1981 before that so it shows it is not easy won.

“With the likes of Ballygawley coming on board; Cookstown coming on board; Bessbrook being in there, these are former Vocational Schools and they have made it very competitive. It is getting more difficult each year and has been doing so since I started teaching at the College.

“This is our first semi-final since 2012 but we have a good record in semi-finals though Holy Trinity are going to be tough. I watched them against reigning champions Our Lady’s Castleblayney in the quarter-final and the game was basically over at half-time.”

The Cookstown school led 3-04 to 0-01 at the half way stage in that last eight match and can boast a number of players with county experience including David Mulgrew who played and scored for Tyrone against Derry in this season’s McKenna Cup at Owenbeg.

And it is not only Tyrone players lining out against St. Columb’s in an intriguing last four pairing. Loup teenager Paddy Coney is Mulgrew’s midfield partner while Conan McLernon, Paul Donnelly, Rian McLernon and Tomas Carney are among a number of Red Hand minors. Add in Tyrone legend Peter Canavan who is expected to be along the line and the game has all the makings of a full blooded derby clash.

And St. Columb’s will not short of talent themselves, starting in the No. 1 shirt with the school’s first All Star since 2007, keeper Dylan Doherty, who is also on Derry City’s books. Doherty is joined by team captain Conall Whyte whose father, Tommy, played for Derry while current Oak Leaf minor Sean Mortimer and Steelstown senior regular Andy Moore are both influential players.

Faughanvale duo Eoin McElhinney and Sean Bradley enjoyed a superb 2015 helping their club to the Derry junior title and reaching an Ulster club final while full back Ross Stephens is one of a Claudy contingent of five likely to start with three from Craigbane.

“Given their experience, yes, we are probably underdogs,” added Burns, “But while we possibly wouldn’t be favourites with a lot of people that is not to say we are not confident. Remember Ballygawley went in as favourites against us in the last round and we deserved that victory.

“We are still unbeaten this year. We have won all our games bar one, a draw against Letterkenny in the group stages. Being unbeaten is a plus and the players are in a positive mood.”

The College will have to plan without Derry minor player Eoghan Concannon who broke his wrist in a group game against Our Lady and St. Patrick’s, Knock and now faces a race against time to be fit for the Oak Leafers defence of their Ulster title while another influential player, Claudy midfielder Odhran Crumley, has been missing since Christmas due to illness.

Despite those missing and the pedigree of Cookstown, Burns believes the College - who brought in highly rated coach Michael McLaughlin to assist with the team this year - have prepared as well as possible and are ready to meet the challenge head on.

“We have been knocking on the door in past years but we have had two bad quarter-final defeats in the last two years.

“The players have put a lot of training in this year. We had a good training camp in Mayo which stood us in good stead, so if we fall short it won’t be for the lack of trying.

“There is plenty of talent within the team. We have a good squad of 30 plus players and any one of them could be used should it be starting or off the bench. We have plenty of options and will need them depending on how the game goes.”

And Burns believes the continued growth of the GAA in the city can only be a good thing for the continued success of the local school.

“Standards have raised certainly and we are seeing it most clearly down the school in the young age groups. We have Steelstown, Doire Colmcille and Pearses represented in this team but I think schools football here is good for the clubs and the progression of the city clubs is good for us. It works both ways.”