Accident is the mother of invention according to some and it’s strange how circumstance has conspired to lead Faughanvale to Sunday’s Ulster Junior Club Championship final.
The ‘Vale had been mainstays in Derry Intermediate football for many years but that security brought with it an apathy and some took that place for granted. Despite a succession of underage success, the St. Mary’s senior team was guilty of going through the motions at times.
Then relegation happened but accidental or otherwise, that setback provided the conditions for what now looks one of the most inspired decisions the club has made. Joe Gray was convinced to take over the senior manager’s role.
“Somebody ambushed me,” laughs Gray as he ponders the reasons for adding management to his considerable playing responsibilities.
“There was obviously disappointment with the way things went last year. Names were being put forward for a new manager but, to be honest, there weren’t too many. It was maybe not what I particularly wanted to do at this moment in time but we needed a manager.
“We went down a league and while I’ll maybe make a few mistakes, you might be able to get away with it a bit. It was something I always wanted to do so I thought ‘Right, to hell with it, I’ll give it a go’.
“It’s not easy but I’ll tell you what does make it easier – bringing the right men in along with you. Shay Murrin and Michael McLaughlin – two really experienced boys and Ryan King after he got injured. Without them I wouldn’t be able to do it, no doubt about it. They do a brilliant job on the sidelines and I can go on and enjoy my game.”
Management it seem agrees with Gray whose influence on the field shows no signs of fading just yet. His first half goal in Healy Park kick-started the opening round win against Tyrone champions, Brackaville and he continues to be play-maker in chief.
Gray is one of the few members of the panel to have tasted Ulster competition before even though by his own admission, it wasn’t taken seriously after the club’s Intermediate Championship in 1999.
“The big difference we have thoroughly enjoyed playing in Ulster. The whole feel about getting into a bus together as a squad, travelling to a county ground, getting a walk onto a big new pitch, leafing through the programme. And then you are playing against teams that you’ve only just known you would be playing for a couple of weeks.
“The excitement of the build up. The community have really bought into it too because its something new for them too. We’ve had big crowds at the games that has really added to the atmosphere. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.
“We have hit a bit of form and we are playing well. I’m still making a bit of an impact myself but the young boys have come in and they are driving this thing forward. The older boys bounce off their energy and lack of fear. The work load is shared. Odie McKinney had a brilliant game against Templeport, Eoin McElhinney was brilliant. Martin Sweeney and Sean Bradley both made an impact. These boys all add to the finished jigsaw.”
That squad ethic and spirit has been one of the biggest positives Gray has brought and the manager knows the importance of every player on the panel.
“You cannot underestimate how important that is. The boys that are getting very little game time and turning up week in, week out. If you don’t have that there is no competition and you don’t have the numbers to do all the things you want to do at training. There is something that Michael (McLaughlin) said - there is nobody in this team that is any bigger than any other player. That’s vital.”
Gray remains hopeful influential midfielder Michael McLaughlin will be fit to play after suffering a hamstring injury in the semi-final win over Templport but even with a full complement, he knows the Greysteel men go into the game as big underdogs.
“Nobody does fancy us and that’s great. It’s easy to go into a changing room and say, ‘Let’s prove these people wrong’. The pressure is off. You hear all the time about how Derry teams aren’t strong at this level but we put pressure on ourselves to perform. We want to go out every game and give a performance that is the best of our ability. And that’s what we’ll judge ourselves at the end of the day.”
“You just look at the history of the competition and Monaghan teams have been in the final about nine times since 2002. That shows you the strength of their junior football. Look at the county team, look at Scotstown in the seniors – all very strong. And Rockcorry will be no different. They’re big, strong, experienced. They played senior football not that long ago and they have plenty of experienced heads. It’s going to be a serious task but it’s a challenge we’re certainly up for.”