Slaughtneil's Ceat McEldowney a present and future star
All-Ireland Club Senior final
Sunday 3rd March in Croke Park
Slaughtneil (Derry) v St Martin's (Wexford)
Half of all teenagers have a bad sporting birthday. Céat McEldowney is one of those. But you won't hear the 17 year-old student in St Patrick's Maghera complaining too much about it.
Born in August 2001, she sat in GCSE classrooms last year with girls who were still playing under 16 and were part of the Derry side that won an Ulster title and lost narrowly to Antrim in an All-Ireland final.
But those same girls covet more the medal that Céat won last March.
“We had a good enough team in my age-group growing up. We won a Féile and league, but didn't win a championship. I suppose I might have liked another year in the lower age-group, but you just get on with it. You can't do anything about it.”
Life changed in Slaughtneil in late 2016 with the senior camogs winning their first Ulster title and they followed through in early 2017 to win the All-Ireland and suddenly Céat's “bad birthday” became her greatest asset.
“That year they won the All-Ireland, I wasn't allowed to play but I was at all the training sessions and was a water-carrier in Croke Park. It was fantastic.
“After the All-Ireland in 2017, the senior league started and because I was in my final year under 16 I became eligible to play. Some of the seniors needed a break and the subs and I were getting games and that was it. I was part of the panel for the championship. I wouldn't have got the chance had I been five months younger!”
Slaughtneil retained their Derry and Ulster titles with cameo performances from the slightly built 16 year old and the show moved on to the All-Ireland stage this time last year.
“I was a bit nervous the first night or two, just with the older girls, but being around them the year before helped and they all talk me through games and encourage me.
“Because I wasn't starting I wasn't nervous about matches, but I was aware that there was every chance I would be getting on and that I needed to be ready.
“I suppose it was a bit scary coming on near the end of the semi-final against Thomastown in Inniskeen. The game was very tight, we were against the wind and holding on. But you don't get time to think about it. You have a job to do.
“Then the game went to extra time and I was still on and that gave me a lot of confidence.”
“Wee” Céat also came on for the last ten minutes of the final as the Emmett's retained their national title. Still to sit her GCSEs and an All-Ireland medal in her back-pocket!
Those GCSE exams last summer went “well” for the youngster and she is now preparing for AS exams in the summer in Maths, Geography, Chemistry and Biology hoping that it will lead to a career in “Medicine or maybe Physiotherapy or something in that line.”
“At the minute it can be pretty hard to fit everything in around camogie. You have training, matches down south and you have your homework and study as well. It isn't easy.”
I first came across “wee Céat” almost four years ago when I took my club team to the Ulster Féile in Portaferry. She was a player that stood out for her team, just as Beth Coulter did for Ballygalget and Saoirse Sands for Portaferry the same afternoon.
I approached the Slaughtneil management to find out her name. I didn't need to ask when I realised Colin “Co” McEldowney was in charge of the team. She may have been small but she had the same fiercely competitive style as her father, Ulster hurler of 2000 centre-half back on the Derry hurling side that broke the mould to win the Ulster senior title for the first time in 92 years.
Co was there for the retention of the title in 2001 and a Derry championship winner with his club in both codes. His younger brothers, twins Feargal and Francis, were still there for the club's recent “golden era”, Frank having the honour of captaining the footballers to three Ulster titles.
“Daddy took us for three or four years at underage level, with Francie Burke and others. He wouldn't give you grief about the mistakes you made, he would always be very supportive.
“I don't see him during senior games. I know he is there and will be down along the fence, but he doesn't deliberately come to the area I would be in.
“Daddy just tells me to try my best and to always be out in front of my player,” Céat commented. “That's the main thing. He doesn't say much, he just lets me play away.”
For this year's championship run, Céat started every championship game.
“I was a corner-forward for the Ballinascreen game because Therese (Mellon) was still injured. But from then on I have been at corner back and usually end up on the flier the other team has.”
In the Ulster final that flier was Caitrin Dobbin who had won Player of the championship the last time Loughgiel beat Slaughtneil in 2015. Last October she was held scoreless as Slaughtneil made it three in a row in Ulster.
“Actually I ended up marking no-one near the end and was sent out to pick up Roisin McCormick at wing-forward.”
At the final whistle Dylan McIlwaine's picture captured the two 17 year-olds embracing.
“I would know Roisin from school and county camogie as well as from the club games. She is a brilliant player and it was great to play with her on the same team a month later when the Ulster Schools won the Inter-provincial.”
That landed both players All-stars. They later picked up Gaelic Life club All-stars and Roisin and her Cross and Passion Ballycastle team-mates will play an All-Ireland schools' final against St Angela's Waterford 24 hours before Céat achieves a personal milestone by playing in Croke Park.
“I can't wait for it. The final last March was in Clones after a couple of postponements because of the weather. Now I get a chance to play in Croke Park and Daddy is so pleased. He says I am getting to do something he never did.”
This group of Slaughtneil players have been real trail-blazers for Ulster camogie every time they take the field. And they have taken the youngster with them, from water-carrier in the first All-Ireland final, to an impact sub with ten minutes to go last year and now a fully paid up member of the starting team.
Céat McEldowney, a real star of the present and future.