Sixty magical minutes which will live in the memories of every member of Magilligan were best summed up by Brian Butcher in the moments following St. Aidan’s dramatic Junior Championship victory over Drum.
“That win represents 25 years of playing Gaelic football for me. This is what it’s all about. It is difficult to explain but it’s one of the best days of my life.”
It wasn’t difficult to explain at all. It was written all over the Magilligan veteran’s face. In fact it was written over the face of every player and supporter who spilled on to the Celtic Park pitch in such numbers that they threatened to delay the start of the senior final. This is what club football represents.
“People had written us off but we put in the hard work and we believed,” added Butcher, “Two, three nights a week we have been training hard, with 30 men giving everything with only one thing in mind - Celtic Park on Championship final day. This is the pinnacle of my career, without a doubt. Roll on Ulster now.”
‘Hope’ is sometimes cited as the thing that kills but in Magilligan’s case it has kept the club going. Hope that days like Sunday would return to the ‘Point’ for the first time since 1988. And Butcher paid tribute to the man he says helped turn that hope into a reality - St. Aidan’s manager, Darren McShane.
“Darren and the whole management team are unreal. They have made so much difference and the knowledge Darren has brought in has been crucial. Everybody looks up to him and respects him. He’s a great trainer and a true Gaelic man.
“The club is really on the up at the minute but this is the biggest thing to ever happen to us and hopefully now we can build on the success.”
Twenty eight years without success breeds doubt and a host of near misses at the semi-final stage over recent seasons only contributed to the doubt. Such a drought also breeds hunger and that desire was palpable on Sunday.
Magilligan faced the breeze first half yet drove into it as if their lives depended on it. McShane knew his team were underdogs and was prepared to cede both possession and territory to Drum. It was a risky strategy based on a previously wasteful St. Aidan’s team capitalising on any chances they created.
It worked a treat as the opening 30 minutes turned into a story of Magilligan efficiency versus Drum wastefulness. St Colm’s enjoyed plenty of possession but hit an alarming number of wides, 11 in the first half alone with St. Aidan’s not registering a wide until the 10th minute of the second half.
Ciaran O’Hare was a colossus in the middle of the park and Connor Logue excellent at driving forward from half way, while every one of the back line tackled like they had taken each championship defeat since ’88 personally.
Then there was Butcher. Popping up at both ends of the field, the stalwart was the key when St. Aidan’s started to rock under second half Drum pressure.
Drum didn’t win the Division Three title by accident. They were the best team in Junior football this season but they ran into a club who have been waiting decades for a day like Sunday and that desire shone through.
Magilligan’s first-half lead of 0-7 to 0-5 never looked secure but then they never relaxed either. Twice in the second half Drum pegged them back to level with the general consensus being that the League champions now had the ‘pretenders’ where they wanted them. But twice St. Aidan’s responded by building leads, the second of which proved decisive.
They withstood a black card for midfielder Cathal McCrudden, his replacement Conor McFeely then instrumental in a crucial late interception that thwarted a possible Drum goal and set up goalkeeper Michael Doherty for his match-winning free.
And that was typical. Every player played a part.
With Drum drawing level at 0-08 points apiece midway through the second half, Conor Canning took responsibility with a brilliant score off his left foot.
At 10 points apiece and with two minutes left, full-forward James Payne decided to turn ‘Lionel Messi’ along the left touchline with a spin that left his marker standing to punch over a point that reversed the tide toward Magilligan once more. Those moments won the game.
The final whistle had been 28 years coming but the celebrations may last just a little longer.
Drum: Cahair O’Kane; Liam Millar, Alex Moore, Damian Brolly; Niall Burke, Gabriel Farren, Shane Miller; James McCartney, Conor O’Kane; Donal Brolly, Ryan O’Kane, Niall Ferris (0-1); Cathaoir McCloskey, Rory O’Reilly (0-7, 3f), Conor O’Reilly(0-1). (Subs) Niall Farren for S Millar, 27mins; Kevin O’Reilly (0-1) for A Moore (inj), 32mins; Corey O’Reilly (0-1) for J McCartney, 41mins; Thomas McCloskey for R O’Kane, 49mins; James McCartney for C O’Reilly, 62mins.
Magilligan: Michael Doherty (0-1, 1f); Colm McLaughlin, Lee Gaile, Michael McLaughlin; Conor Kelly, Eoin Kelly, Brian Canning (0-2); Ciaran O’Hare (0-3, 2f), Cathal McCrudden; Brian Butcher (0-1), Aaron Canning, Connor Logue (0-1); Martin McIvor (0-2), James Payne (0-1), Conor Canning (0-1). (Subs) Anthony Doherty for C Kelly, H/T; Conor McFeely for C McCrudden (Black Card) 38mins; Barry Mullan for C McLaughlin, 50mins.
Referee: Alan Nash (Doire Trasna)