John McEntee: Damian Cassidy is giving Bellaghy belief again

Bellaghy celebrate their thumping win over Crossmaglen in the final of the fonaCAB Ulster Minor Football Champions Tournament on New Year's Day Picture by Seamus Loughran

A CROWD had gathered outside St Paul’s GAC pavilion at half-time in Tuesday’s Ulster club minor final.

They were Crossmaglen supporters having their half-time analysis of what they’d just seen. Inconceivably, their team had just been handed a footballing lesson by Bellaghy, the Co Derry football aristocrats. The score was 1-8 to 0-3.

Yes, there was an eight-point gap but as we know in minor football, the whole pattern of play can switch in an instant. Not today. What we witnessed in the first half from the Derry champions was a performance of utter dominance minus a little finishing poise.

Had they converted their chances they could have been winning by 5-15 to 0-3 and it would have been game over.

Yet, there was hope in the hearts of Cross supporters as there was a feeling that a purple patch would come and they’d be right back in the game when it mattered most – the final 10 minutes.

Sadly, a curious sending off of arguably their best player on the day – Odhran Kieran – before the ball was thrown up to start the second half reduced Crossmaglen to 14 men and put an end to any likely revival.

Unlike senior club games, the disappointment was not overwhelming, as there is a feeling of great pride in this team and their achievements thus far, and that minor grade is but an imitation of the real thing.

If truth be told, the writing was on the wall before a ball was kicked.

I like to attend matches early to observe teams warming up and get a feel for each team. These boys in blue looked an impressive outfit; all of similar athletic standing, muscular, powerful, confident – the type of confidence that says ‘we believe’.

They had a swagger that was threatening and meant business. As they moved they did so with purpose and ease.

It was noted that their free-taking was suspect and their ability to shoot from range compromised.

I guess my hope was that they’d be forced to shoot from range and that they would grow frustrated with an inability to muster up 20 points from play.

In hindsight, this was wishful thinking. Crossmaglen, on the other hand, were clearly in their shadow physically.

They are much younger, and with the exception of Cian O’Neill and perhaps one or two others, they are all available next year. Their handling was jittery, their movements more awkward in comparison. It has been noted that work is needed to keep pace with the strength and conditioning of other teams.

These Bellaghy lads weren’t boys, they were young men. Some are ready to compete at senior level. Indeed, some have already represented their club at senior grade.

When Bellaghy tackled they dispossessed. The art of tackling is honed to its finest grade in Derry more so than any other county. Perhaps it is the training received in schools such as St Patrick’s, Maghera or St Mary’s, Magherafelt which filters through all clubs. Alternatively, they may be honed from the presence of defensive role models of the ilk of Paul Diamond, or aggressive tacklers such as the Doherty brothers or Damian Cassidy, their manager, who spurs the current generation into learning the art of defending. Good habits are formed at a young age with repetition; perfect practice makes perfect.

The Crossmaglen players will be disappointed with the manner of the defeat but they should not beat themselves up. Their progress under Stephen Kernan and his backroom team has been extraordinary.

To win their county title they had to close a gap of 30-plus points on the dominant Armagh team of this age group at U16 grade, which they duly did before dispatching the Fermanagh and Down champions to reach the provincial final.

Stephen is one of the best new managers on the block so he knows there is huge learning to be gleaned from this journey and the character built will undoubtedly stand his players in good stead for next year and future years.

On this occasion he came up against a wily old fox in Cassidy (right), who has performed equally heroic work to bring a team together to now carry the hopes of a proud club into the next decade.

Damian will know from the experience of his neighbouring club Watty Graham’s that minor success does not guarantee senior success.

What he has rekindled is belief within a sleeping giant that success is once again possible. What he brings to the table is a work ethic, a style of play, and a will-to-win which cannot be instilled into someone – it has to be inherent.

What’s more, the people of Bellaghy are behind this new wave of success. If you were at that match you would have seen they came in large numbers, they came early and they enjoyed every minute of that victory.

In the 80s these two clubs clashed at senior grade and it became the stuff of legend. In the late 90s they clashed again and history was repeated. There was one more meeting in 2005.

Leaving St Paul’s, I got a feeling that these proud clubs will soon meet again and the next time it will be for real.

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