John McEntee: Provincial championships bring a high level of intrigue

Slaughtneil's win over Kilcar was a superb advertisement for the provincial club championships Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

“The Americans are in town, they want to know if there is a game up in the club this weekend.”

That was the muffled voicemail I received at 7am on Saturday. Exactly who the Americans are, I may never know.

A friend evidently met some tourists while enjoying a beer or two and thought he would educate them on how the locals pass their time.

It turned out that these folk were advised to watch Crossmaglen play football when they came to Ireland by friends back home.

But they’re out of luck this year. It’s been long autumn around our town, with local lads throwing their energies into work and in building up brownie points with their partners in advance of next year’s onslaught on the county title.

Meanwhile, the provincial club championships are steaming ahead. They are such a special competitions, whose value is only truly appreciated by communities who commit fully to them.

Where else would you witness minnows of Wicklow defeat the kingpins of Dublin and Leinster so emphatically that they are the new favourites to win Leinster?

What about Corofin and St Brigid’s playing out an epic encounter in Connacht, only for the Galway champions to sneak through by the narrowest of margins?

The effort and energy expended was testament to both teams’ desire to win this competition. The physical conditioning of Corofin, for club players, was impressive.

In Munster there is a battle royal waiting when Dr Croke’s of Killarney, the reigning All Ireland champions, take on the mighty Nemo Rangers of Cork.

Everyone with championship aspirations will be keeping an eye on this game as the winners will have a big say come St Patrick’s Day.

The games which caught my attention were the Ulster semi-finals. Derrygonnelly had soundly beaten their previous opponents but, given the way Armagh Harps celebrated after winning their first county title in 25 years, it made victory for the Fermanagh side a foregone conclusion.

The view shared by many that Cavan Gaels, led by the evergreen Seanie Johnston, would possess too much experience and guile for Derrygonnelly was wide of the mark as they bravely managed to secure a draw after extra-time.

A sum total of two points each in extra-time would not inspire the Americans to visit either footballing stronghold but that won’t concern many. A second attempt is the important thing for them.

Slaughtneil’s game against Kilcar was a different matter. Both teams opted to play with abandon and have a good old fashioned shoot-out, as a scoreline of 2-17 to 0-17 suggests.

Kilcar were defeated but they can hold their heads high. They were magnificent. To watch the ageless Michael Hegarty, arguably Donegal’s greatest playmaker of the past 20 years, morph into the enforcer at centre-back and place his body on the line time after time was worth the admission alone.

In the end, their honesty and will to win from the outset was their downfall. That’s not a bad thing. Sometimes losing with integrity and honesty is better than winning ugly.

The whole experience will stand to them. Hopefully it will give them the desire to aim higher next year and to achieve that balance between playing to win and setting up so they can’t lose. Success is built on one’s failures and one’s response to that experience.

It must be said that lady luck sat on the shoulder of Slaughtneil during the game. I lost count of the number of saves Antoin McMullan made.

Who’d have thought that Patrick McBrearty or Ryan McHugh would miss gilt-edged opportunities for goal? Big Patsy Bradley was fortunate not to be shown a few cards. Young Keelan Feeney boldly marked Eoin McHugh but I’m sure he is wondering how he got away with conceding so few frees.

In the end, Slaughtneil were too good. They have acquired a steely resolve worthy of champions – great champions. Their composure under pressure is admirable. Their ability to ratchet it up in response to perceived threats from the opposition is a trait few share.

Slaughtneil should soak up this lofty position of a club among clubs. They should protect it and continue to build the foundations which have elevated them. It strikes me that their people are grounded in the ethos of culture, chivalry and community. They have become the envy of all clubs in the north, including my own.

Slaughtneil are now unbackable to win the Seamus McFerran Cup. It has been 40 years since Cavan Gaels last featured in an Ulster final. Derrygonnelly are treading new ground with each passing week. History is not on either team’s side and Slaughtneil, a team with a purpose, have no place for complacency.

This takes us to the special place that only club football can take you to, and as Rathnew discovered, if you believe, anything is possible.

I hope my friend brought those Americans to Healy Park, Omagh to watch the jewel in our GAA crown. As for his muffled voicemail, it ended with: “Oh and what time is the Aussie Rules game at?”

What Aussie Rules game?

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