Lamh Dhearg and St John's: Murray hopeful as rivalry blossoms
CITY rivalries in the GAA are different yet the same.
They’re a bit less about sheughs and streams than the rural warfare that has made the GAA what it is, but in some cases even more intertwined.
On Sunday, Lamh Dhearg will meet St John’s in an all-Belfast Antrim football final. There has been no shortage of them in recent years, but the difference here is that St Gall’s aren’t involved.
It’s just over three miles from Hannahstown Hill to the Whiterock Road, and it’s a small city at the best of times.
The Nugent family having a foot in both camps is the obvious starting point for a discussion on one team’s intimate knowledge of the other, but there are umpteen friendships too.
Lámh Dhearg’s Ryan Murray sits beside St. John’s Paddy McBride on the Antrim team bus. They’ve been mates ever since they started out with Antrim under-16s, and have now been on the senior panel together for five years. More recently he’s become friends with Matt Fitzpatrick.
Murray also lived with Luke Peden, who will most likely operate as the Johnnies’ sweeper, during his second year at Queen’s university.
The three Murray brothers – Ryan the youngest, Conor the middle and Kevin at the head – have been Lamh Dhearg men all through, even though geography mightn’t naturally take them there.
They’re out towards Lisburn, almost 10 minutes from Hannahstown, but when the eldest son Kevin was plucked from La Salle College and drafted into the white and red by club stalwart Paul Buchanan, the rest followed suit.
Their father, Falls Road native Brendan, played a bit of soccer, while Andersonstown-born mother Margaret was a handy netball player, but neither of them grew up affiliated to the GAA. It’s put quite simply down to “The Belfast thing”.
When Conor followed after Kevin, then Ryan naturally was drawn in too. Those two have followed in Kevin’s footsteps in their county’s saffron as well.
“It’s a big family thing now. It’s only from Kevin got involved with it, but the whole family is Gaelic mad now,” says Ryan, the youngest of the trio.
“Mum and Dad wouldn’t miss a match now, even if it was in Tipperary. They’re there at every game.
“Dad never really played Gaelic and it’s something he talks about, he wishes he could have played. Probably just the Belfast thing that he didn’t.”
A civil engineer by trade, the 24-year-old is involved in the design process of the work being done between the A6 and the end of the motorway.
Trying to squeeze in a bit of football at training as the evenings disappear means an earlier start the last few weeks, but it’s a price he’s gladly playing to still be playing in October.
While this will be Lamh Dhearg’s sixth county final appearance since 2003, this has been an era dominated by their city rivals St Gall’s and, to a much lesser extent, Cargin.
Since 1998, it’s always been one or t’other, if not both togging out on county final day.
Kevin Murray lost the first four of those county finals and was manager for the fifth, when they were well beaten by Cargin two years ago.
Conor and Ryan have both experienced two final defeats, to St Gall’s six years ago and Cargin in 2015. Yet Ryan Murray always felt this day would come where the big two are out of the way.
They took St Gall’s out themselves with a first Championship win over the Milltown men since 1999 before fending off a Creggan side that would have fancied their own chances after a few seasons knocking on the door.
“Even thinking back most people forgot about St Paul’s in the prelim round. Going into that, there was a bit of nerves about it, we were happy enough to get over the line.
“Beating St Gall’s was a big thing for us. That got the confidence up around the club and we went to play Creggan, who were in a similar enough position to ourselves at the minute – a young enough team, well set up, and we managed to put in a solid enough performance to get over the line.”
He has seen St John’s often enough in finals to do him already, from beating them at minor before going on to conquer Ulster in 2010, losing at the same grade in 2011 and then again at under-21 three years later.
Murray lost all three finals in one year, minor, under-21 and senior, in 2011 and lost a further under-21 decider to Portglenone in 2013.
“The older boys would have had St Gall’s and Cargin the whole way through, but most of the younger lads from my age down it would be St John’s.
“I probably expected at some stage since those minor and under-21 finals that we might play St John’s some day in a county final,” he says.
“This year, if you went back to the start, the way the draw was laid out most people would have been saying another Cargin-St Gall’s final.
“We managed to beat St Gall’s and then St John’s were definitely value for money against Cargin. Watching both those matches, they played super and they’re a young, fit team.
“It might have been a shock on paper but I’m sure if you ask any of the St John’s boys it wasn’t a shock, and from watching those two matches it definitely wasn’t a shock.
“It’s a final where both teams are there on merit.”