Climbing the steps for Gary Donnelly was a massive leap for Ballymacnab. The Round Towers breakthrough in 1999
GARY Donnelly limped up the steps at the Athletic Grounds to receive the Armagh Junior Championship trophy on behalf of Ballymacnab after the club’s historic breakthrough victory over Belleek in 1999.
Two decades on and the Round Towers’ graph continues to climb upwards. On Sunday the rural outfit takes on Crossmaglen Rangers in the senior final, a repeat of last year’s decider.
This is Ballymacnab’s third crack at the Gerry Fegan Cup but who’s counting? The club lost seven finals – 1946, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1984, 1993 and 1994 – before they landed that junior title in 1999.
Donnelly was a talented 16-year-old forward when he played in the 1993 decider against Shane O’Neill’s and he was established in the side when Ballymacnab returned to the final against Madden the following year.
“It was nip and tuck the whole way through the match against Madden,” he recalled.
“They were ahead but we got it down to a point with about five minutes to go and our full-back – Neil McKee – came up the field. He had been our full-back for years and it was his last game for the club, he hit a shot and it came off their crossbar, it was the last kick of the game. We ended up getting beat by a point that day. We were so unlucky.”
Five more seasons passed before the ’Nab got another shot at the cup. By 1999 the side was ready to take the step that had eluded men in the maroon jersey since the club’s foundation in 1925.
Wolfe Tone’s were beaten at Abbey Park at the semi-final stage but that win came at a cost when Donnelly hobbled off with a knee injury.
“I was captain that year,” he recalls.
“That was my best game in the championship and we won it by three points. I got injured with about 15 minutes to go and I got my knee strapped up for the final but I didn’t play much in it.”
Even without their skipper, Ballymacnab had too much for Belleek in the final and two goals from former Armagh star Vinny Loughran saw them to a comfortable win.
“I was away from about half seven that morning to get my knee strapped up, I got it finished but it took nearly the whole day to get me in any sort of shape to walk,” Donnelly recalls.
“I came on anyway but the first ball I went for, my knee gave way again and I had to go off again. When I look back at it now I think I probably shouldn’t even have togged out but because I was captain I didn’t want to let anybody down.
“Anyway, the other boys pulled the cat out of the bag and we won the thing that we had never won before. Philip, Raymond and Damian McCone were great men in the defence but that day the one man who stood out for me was James Gray.
“He started instead of me and he was taken off for me and then he went back on and played every bit as well again. He had a great game and Vinny Loughran got the goals for us.
“The celebrations after it were unreal, they lasted for a full week. We had achieved something that had never been achieved by the club before.”
And since that breakthrough success, Ballymacnab haven’t looked back. The Round Towers won the Intermediate title in 2006 and in 2011 the club progressed to the Orchard county’s senior showpiece for the first time in their history.
They took on a star-studded Crossmaglen side that had won 14 of the previous 15 Gerry Fegan Cups and struggled to get into the game. A 25-point loss was a chastening defeat but the emergence of players like Rory and Jack Grugan, Gavin McParland and Ryan Kennedy has seen Ballymacnab rise from opponents to genuine title contenders since then.
They were finalists again last year and closed the gap to six points. Donnelly is convinced that Sunday’s clash could be third-time-lucky for his club.
“I never thought I would see the club in a senior final,” he admitted.
“It shows what you can do if you get the right group of boys together and the right manager and I can see them winning and I hope they believe in themselves.
“They have the team there and they are at the age now when they can win something – I think they are able and capable of winning it.”