Ciaran Higgins strike seals historic victory for Maghery in Armagh SFC
Donnelly Group Armagh Senior Football Championship final: Maghery Sean McDermott’s 1-13 St Patrick’s, Cullyhanna 0-13
INTERVIEWING Maghery players proved difficult after this victory – not because they were at all reluctant to speak but due to supporters repeatedly dragging them away in celebratory bear hugs.
There were always going to be emotional scenes with first time winners guaranteed either way but the lough shore club fully deserved to deny Cullyhanna their debut triumph and win at last in their fifth final.
Despite all six of their starting forwards scoring from play, the big moments of this match both came from Maghery defenders.
Young centre half-back Ciaran Higgins grabbed the game’s only goal midway through the second half, putting them into a lead they were never to lose.
Before that the sides had been level seven times but Cullyhanna could not quite recover from that well-worked 45th minute effort.
However, the gap would have been reduced to the minimum margin in the third minute of added time except that 35-year-old Gerard Campbell hacked a low Aidan Nugent shot off the line as it headed for the bottom corner of the net through a crowd of players.
Maghery captain James Lavery spoke in his acceptance speech of being mocked as they did training runs through the streets of Lurgan but the Sean MacDermott’s had the last laugh, leading to tears from men whose increased waistlines since their playing days were stretching old jerseys to the limits.
Lavery paid tribute to the club’s past players, but also acknowledged the contribution of younger members of the current team, saying: “We’ve proved a lot of people wrong.
“Numbers were low at the start of the year but young boys stood up. It’s great having legs like Ben [Crealey] in beside you. Big Ciaran Higgins at centre half-back, a fantastic player, Eoin Scullion, they were a joy to play with and are serious leaders.”
Lavery himself grew into the game, especially in the second half after briefly being forced off on a blood substitution in first half injury time.
Yet memorable as this win will be for years to come, he revealed that his personal recollection was rather hazy: “To be honest I took a hard knock in the middle of the first half and I can’t really mind much of it.”
The St Patrick’s had a strong wind from the outset and consequently led for much of the first period, largely through the free-taking of Aidan Nugent, but Maghery were usually able to peg them back, at least until the final score of the half left Cullyhanna ahead by 0-7 to 0-6.
Maghery’s veteran goalkeeper Johnny Montgomery was directing his kick-outs with some success to Ronan Lappin, who dropped out from corner-forward to his side’s left flank.
However, those kicked up the middle were often broken powerfully by Cullyhanna around centre-field, especially when their full-forward Mal Mackin pulled out to that area.
Indeed the intensity of competition for possession led to a series of stoppages for injuries as men threw themselves into challenges for the ball, heedless of their own or opponents’ safety.
Maghery also deployed their other nominal corner-forward, Stephen Cusack, in a withdrawn sweeping role for much of the first half, which limited Cullyhanna’s attackers.
They were efficient going forward themselves, targeting Aidan Forker at full-forward, and he got scoring support from all his half-forward line.
The sense was that the loughshore men would have been happy enough to trail by the minimum margin at the break, and Lavery agreed that they were confident, but not over-confident: “We went in at half-time and although we knew we had the legs in our team and had a bit of a breeze, we were taking nothing for granted – Cullyhanna are a quality side, what with the U21 titles they have won recently.
“We had the utmost faith that if we got the ball into our forwards they would do damage.”
That didn’t seem the case, though, in the early stages of the second period, certainly not after Ronan Lappin drew the sides level for the seventh and last time just 15 seconds after the restart.
Maghery boss Shane McConville dispensed with the sweeper and they got plenty of possession up top, but they were profligate with the opportunities, struggling to gauge the wind.
After that initial score they registered eight wides in the next 14 minutes, and Aidan Forker also shot short, their only subsequent score in that spell coming from a Stefan Forker free. That meant Cullyhanna scores from the lively Shea Hoey and the roving Mackin had put them back in front, and they led by nine points to eight going into the 44th minute.
The south Armagh side might even have been further ahead but Montgomery rose decisively to cut out a dangerous ball fisted across the goalmouth from Hoey. Lavery insisted that he wasn’t worried about their wastefulness, though, saying: “Not really, we do that a lot. We’ve done it throughout the Championship.
“We’ve a lot of wise heads and we knew that if we kept getting the men in the right positions, kept plugging away, the scores would come, and thankfully they did.”
The key one was clearly the goal. Aidan Forker instigated it with a smart hand-pass to release Cusack – back in the attack – on the right flank and he ran on before picking out Higgins with a perfect hand-pass to palm the ball to the net.
Although Aidan Nugent responded from a free, Maghery’s tails were up, Cusack, yet another Forker – substitute Seamus – and cornerback Campbell reeling off the game’s only run of three consecutive scores to put them four up.
Cullyhanna, of course, kept at it, burly midfielder Barry McConville pointing, but good scores from sub David Lavery and Aidan Forker gave Maghery breathing space. They were hanging on to their opponents in the closing stages, but not really hanging on to victory.
When Aidan Forker left the pitch due to a late black card for dragging down Mackin, he did so with a smile on his face. He was soon back on it, joined by hundreds of his clubmates of all ages, also smiling, laughing, and crying – but this time it was tears of joy for Maghery on county final day.
Maghery: J Montgomery; K Nugent, O Lappin, G Campbell (0-1); E Scullion, C Higgins (1-0), N Forker; J Lavery, B Crealey; S Fox (0-1), C Mackle (0-1), Stefan Forker (0-2, 0-1 frees); R Lappin (0-1), A Forker (0-4, 0-2 frees), S Cusack (0-1) Substitutes: D Lavery (0-1) for Nugent (h-t); Seamus Forker (0-1) for Fox (39); P Forker for Mackle (50); S Tennyson for N Forker (55); C Forker for Cusack (60) Blood sub: S Tennyson for Lavery (31, first half to ht) Yellow cards: Scullion (49); Tennyson (62) Black card: A Forker (64)
Cullyhanna: J Carragher; S Reel, S Connell, K McCooey; C Connolly, G McCooey (capt), F O’Rourke; B McConville (0-1), P Casey (0-1); M Murray, E Casey, S Hoey (0-1); J Duffy, M Mackin (0-1), A Nugent (0-9, 0-7 frees) Substitutes: P McCreesh for O’Rourke (22); C Nugent for Reel (43); S Conlon for Hoey (51); A Conlon for E Casey (56) Yellow cards: Mackin (14); K McCooey (28); McCreesh (55)
Referee: Padraig Hughes (Crossmaglen)