Underdogs tag won't bother Sean Dolan's ahead of Desertmartin final in Celtic Park
Premier Electrics Derry Junior Football Championship Final: Sean Dolan's v Desertmartin (Sat, Celtic Pk, 2.30pm)
An integral component in Geoffrey McGonigle’s trailblazing treble winners of 2009, a team who ended a 67-year wait to bring a championship title to Creggan, Ciaran Wilkinson has never held much respect for sporting reputations.
Being written off is part of Sean Dolan’s DNA. As is defying those same predictions. They’re the eternal underdogs and having fought back from a 2011 clubhouse fire which almost put them out of existence, they are unlikely to be intimidated by the considerable reputation of Junior Championship holders and favourites, Desertmartin, ahead of Saturday’s final in Celtic Park.
Dolan’s clubhouse and infrastructure is now on its way to becoming the envy of Ulster and former midfielder Wilkinson is doing his best to ensure the senior side keeps pace with the forward momentum. The former Derry minor player is in his first season in charge but has the Neal Carlin Cup to lean on and now a place in Junior football’s showpiece. Yet, some habits die hard and Dolan’s are still being written off.
“We know Desertmartin will be favourites but we won’t be intimidated by that,” explained the St. Joseph’s Boys’ School teacher, “They seem to already have their eye on an Ulster run which suits us fine.
“If they are looking that far ahead then maybe they are not looking at us as they should be. They have almost disregarded us from what I have been reading this week. If they are talking about a run in Ulster, which apparently the chairman has been, that’s their prerogative. If they don’t want to respect us, that’s fine, but respect is like anything else, it has to be earned.
“It suits us to be honest. We have earned our place in the final. We always seem to do things the hard way and play better when our backs are against the wall. When we are not given that respect, that helps as well.”
Wilkinson was referencing a story in which Desertmartin manager Kevin O’Neill said his chairman informed him the club had never had a run in Ulster after Covid put pay to hopes following victory in the delayed 2020 final. Probably no more than a throw-away remark on O’Neill’s part but it will nevertheless add fuel to the Dolan’s fire as they seek to bridge the championship gap back to Wilkinson’s side of 2009.
“For us it is about getting people believing,” added Wilkison. “We can play good football and I think we’ve shown that this season. We have boys like young Odhran McKane who should be knocking on the door for the county, so there is plenty of talent.
“We won the Neal Carlin in pre-season which gave everyone a good lift and the belief that we could achieve something this year. We took the foot off the pedal a bit after winning that, stopped doing the hard donkey work and that was what had won us the cup in the first place.
“We all took our eye off the ball a little, myself included. Not that we rested on our laurels, we just eased off ever so slightly and you can’t afford to do that, teams catch you out. Our aim was always to work on fitness first, build that up and then work on a system of play that suited how we build up the play.
“That was our focus after the Carlin win but you always have to keep your eye on the basics which are working hard. Maybe we didn’t do that for a while but the boys have been giving everything now and that has shown in the championship.”
It has and it’s starting to get noticed as years of hard work, on and off the pitch, begins to pay dividends for Dolan’s. Red and white flags and bunting throughout Creggan illustrate the growing importance of the club to its community and Wilkinson is delighted to see it.
“Seeing the community react to our run and the underage success has been brilliant,” added Wilkinson. "We’re seeing flags going up in Creggan and people taking a real interest in the club. There is something very special building.
“Slowly but surely it’s taking on a life of its own and it’s great to see the club becoming such an integral part of the Creggan community and the people reacting and celebrating a bit of success.
“Everyone has been behind us. Getting to a county final is special and you’re starting to see that in Creggan with people having pride in their club. We’re seeing faces at matches we haven’t seen before, new faces helping out and that’s a good sign.
“The fire wiped us out and it nearly took the club out. There were only a few people keeping it going but now you’re starting to see the fruits of all the hard work those people put in and we are only getting started. New people are weighing in, coming to games and talking about the club. Even just conversations, it shows the club is part of the community now.”
While McKane remains Dolan’s ace in the pack, he’s not short of support with the McCosker brothers, Kevin Nixon, Ruairi Thompson and brilliant keeper Ryan McLaughlin all full of championship pedigree but this will be their biggest test of the season.
Desertmartin have conceded just five points in their two knockout games, beating Doire Colmcille by 5-10 to 0-1 in the quarter final before thrashing a strong looking Craigbane team by 1-14 to 0-4 in the last four.
The south Derry men boast three of the Derry minor team that won the 2020 All Ireland minor title including brilliant forward Lorcan Murray who has been called into the Derry senior squad. The other two All Ireland winning minors are Conor Shields and Ryan McEldowney but there is also dynamic centre half back Eunan McElhennon who got forward to score 1-2 against Craigbane as well as experienced campaigners like Dermot Breen, Gregory McGovern, Enda McGuckin and Aide Trainor.
“We know Desertmartin are a good side. They’re the holders, an Intermediate side playing at Junior level,” adds Wilkison. But we have aspirations of Intermediate football as well and county finals don’t come along every year. We have to concentrate on what we do well and make sure we leave everything out there.”