ASK ANY defender who played Junior football in Derry over the past 10 years or so about which forward he least liked playing against and ‘Al’ McLaughlin’s name won’t be far away.
Michael Wilson reports
You could even pose the same question at Steelstown and Coleraine and he might get a mention. That’s how long McLaughlin has been racking up scores for the ‘Black and Amber’.
Still only 30, the corner-forward remembers well the days when St Mary’s were mixing it with - and defeating - the likes of Brian Ogs and Eoghan Rua, both of whom are now competing at the county’s top football table. In 2000, Ardmore were expected to merely show-up for the Junior Championship coronation of a Coleraine team which would go on to win the Derry senior title within 10 years. They spoiled the Coleraine party that day and have been doing it to teams ever since thanks in no small part to the prolific McLaughlin.
Like most of the Ardmore team, ‘Al’ appears to have been playing for St. Mary’s forever but the 2010 win over Doire Trasna - who were again big favourites - was only his second Championship medal. Now Ardmore stand on the brink of a very memorable season finale.
Ardmore will finish the season with a Championship final, a promotion play-off against Glack and a Neal Carlin Cup Final against Dolan’s. Finish? According to Al, Ardmore’s season is only just beginning.
“The season is only heating up for us,” he explained, “We have the Championship final this week, then there is the promotion battle and we also have the Neal Carlin final so it’s all in front of us.
“People might say the Championship has to be our priority and you will always look for the Championship but Intermediate football would be great. I’d love to play at a better standard again and I think for some of the younger players it would be good to experience that standard of football. It would help them.
“I know it’s not good for clubs to go up and struggle every week but if we did manage to go up, we would be getting boys like Mark O’Kane and ‘Snowy’ McLaughlin back so we could probably hold our own. Glack have certainly made promotion their target and it looks like we could be meeting them in the play-off but that’s for another day. I suppose the only target you can have is the next big game and for us that’s Drum.”
Ardmore manager William McLaughlin will be missing from the sidelines due to a pre-planned holiday meaning the team will be looked after by coaches Rory O’Boyle and Emmet O’Kane.
“Not having William on the sidelines will be a blow but Rory is a real motivator and he will have all the lads up for the game, there’s no doubt about that. Rory and Emmett O’Kane are well able of looking after things but it is unfortunate that William will miss the game. He puts a lot of work in.”
Despite the enforced change along the lines and with Ryan Storey and Dee McGee also missing, Ardmore will not deviate from a tried and trusted game-plan. Their traditional system could almost be viewed as radical thinking in the modern football world and ‘Al’ laughs off any notion of changing it for the final.
“Maybe we just stick to that system because we have all been there for so many years we couldn’t change it now if we wanted to! Seriously though, we’re used to it and it suits us. Systems don’t bother me much, I’m comfortable playing in a couple of positions and as long as you’re getting a decent supply of ball, then I’m happy enough.
“There will be very few surprises, both teams know each other so well. The one thing you always get with Drum is a difficult game, especially in Championship football. They are a very dogged team and in the group game they caused us a lot of problems. They could easily have went into half-time with a very healthy lead but the penalty brought us back into it.
“That’s the thing with us, we are always very slow starters and I don’t know why. It seems to take us an age to settle down and then we hit teams for a 15-20 minute spell.
“However, in past seasons we weren’t able to bring boys off the bench to change games but this year we have been able to do that and that’s because of the younger boys who are coming through. Boys like Leonard Quinn and Anthony Hargan and others give us that depth we’ve been missing and that’s vital, especially with the players we’ve lost.”
Some will bill the final as a shoot-out between McLaughlin and Drum dangerman Rory O’Reilly who caused St Mary’s no end of problems in the group game before a strange Drum decision to move him out the field. Al, though, is quite happy to accept the pressure of expectation.
“I don’t mind the pressure. Even if you get a bit of extra attention it doesn’t matter, it is all about getting that early ball in and we also have players like Eddie Bell who has come back in and is scoring well. When you have someone like Barry Gormley play-making it makes things easier. Barry makes the game look so simple and is one of the best at this level.
“Rory O’Reilly will be a big danger, he was excellent in the group game but I’m comfortable we will have a man to mark him. Frees could be a key area and Drum are perhaps a bit stronger in that we don’t have a left-footed free taker but there won’t be much in it.
“I can still remember in 2000 when Coleraine where just supposed to turn up and walk away with the trophy. Most of us boys were only 16 or 17 then and we didn’t think it would be another ten years before we got our hands on another Championship. Now we’re back in another final and hopefully we can make it count.”