NEXT week, the St. Columb’s College MacLarnon Class 0f 2002 will meet in Claudy to celebrate 10 years since their historic single point defeat of De La Salle, Belfast - the school’s second and last triumph in the prestigious tournament.
Michael Wilson Reports
That side was backboned by a crop of players including Paul O’Hea, Marty Dunne, Aidan Cleary, Eamonn Gibson and James Jackson who have since provided the platform for Steelstown’s meteoric rise to senior football. Claudy and former Derry minor star Gavin Donaghy who was captain that day will also return from the US to mark the occasion. That’s what the 2-07 to 2-06 victory meant to the players and to the School.
Winning manager Eamon Burns, however, is planning on turning the anniversary into a double celebration.
On Monday morning in the Athletic Grounds, Armagh, the College’s Class of 2012 will attempt to emulate their illustrious predecessors when they meet St. Paul’s, Bessbrook and All Ireland winner Burns is backing his new breed to add their own chapter to St. Columb’s rich football history.
“That 2002 team had some great characters but they were a very dedicated bunch of players,” explained Burns, “We had lost two finals in succession so most of the players knew what it was to lose a final but that experience stood to them. They were a determined bunch of lads but this team is every bit as talented, if not more so. You just hope on the day they realise how big a match is.
“The final is all about what happens on the day. Anything that has gone before doesn’t count. The great semi-final victory means nothing and hopefully the boys go out and do themselves justice.”
Whereas the 2002 vintage was dominated by the Brian Ogs contingent, this year’s panel is a much more cosmopolitan mix of players from across Derry City’s clubs and beyond.
Team captain Anthony Hargan is from Ardmore with players from Craigbane, Doire Trasna, Faughanvale, Steelstown, Doire Colmcille, Claudy, Slaughtmanus and Banagher perhaps reflecting the city’s new found confidence in its GAA heritage.
Moved from it’s traditional St. Patrick’s Day berth to an unwelcoming early start for Derry supporters - especially considering how far Bessbrook supporters have to travel - Burns is expecting a tough test against a team which taught his side a lesson in last year’s competition.
“The hard work is done and I’m sure all the boys are very excited but to be honest I’ve tried to keep a lid on it and prepare as normal as possible.
“We’ve been training three nights and had a replay against Downpatrick less than two weeks ago so hopefully those matches will stand to us. The boys need to keep their feet on the ground and realise they haven’t won anything yet.
“Last year we didn’t make the Quarter-finals for the first time since my time with the school. That was a major disappointment and it was St. Paul’s who gave us a hammering in the last-16. We had to re-evaluate the situation and geared all our preparations toward the group stages. In other years we had perhaps presumed qualification but we have prepared better this year.
“We know St. Paul’s from last year but in terms of named players there are only a couple I know. Corner-forward Jemar Hall was very hard to mark last year and they have Ciaron O’Hanlon who played for Armagh Minors in the forward line last year. Those are the two who stuck out but they are a good all-round team and have good management behind them with a lot of experience. The fact they were beaten in the final last year means that they will be looking to go one better. They will be difficult to beat.”
Despite the pedigree of opponent, this College side has not shortage of talent itself with Craigbane’s Ryan Moore and Steelstown Mark Brennan prominent among six forwards who all know where the target is.
“We do have five or six scoring forwards this year. They have shared the work load and the scores but I need to emphasis how good our defence has played. The likes of Barry Carton and Anthony Hargan. They are boys who don’t say much but very little gets by them. Shane O’Connor has been a bonus, Emmett McBride’s really steady and is very versatile while Ryan McCloskey’s a good athlete. We have some good options.
Multi-talented midfielder Michael Brennan also has the small matter of an All Ireland basketball final to look forward next week.
“It is great to have a boy of Michael’s size with football ability and good hands. He is a big asset but beside him we have Michael Sweeney from Faughanvale who is a real athlete and can get forward. It’s a very good panel of players.”
That panel stand just 60 minutes from a place in MacLarnon and St. Columb’s history but with many already experiencing senior football at their clubs, Burns - who has worked alongside 1981 MacLarnon winning coach Brian Trainor since joining the school - was keen to stress the importance of tasting success at their own age level.
“We have a few playing senior football but I try to emphasis to the lads that playing senior football when you’re 17 is great but you’ve got to achieve things at your own age group first and foremost.
“Brian was manager in 1981 and then we won again in 2002 and these boys probably don’t realise the significance of what they can achieve. They will only realise the importance and the significance of winning years after. It’s probably only now that the 2002 boys can look back and say, ‘We achieved something’, so hopefully we can repeat the success with this team.”
If they do, don’t bank on the Class of 2012 waiting ten years to celebrate!