Hurling and camogie

Convery recalls St Mary's Magherafelt's camogie All-Ireland

Antrim's Michaela Convery (centre) helped St Mary's Magherafelt win an All-Ireland in 2007.
Pic Seamus Loughran
Seamas McAleenan

THERE have only ever been two school teams from Ulster that have lifted Corn Sceilge, the All-Ireland senior schools' camogie championship. Coincidentally both wins came in replays and against a Presentation Convent from Connacht.

The first was for Sacred Heart Newry in 1971, the third year of the competition. But we had to wait 36 years for St Mary's, Magherafelt to beat Presentation Athenry over two games and bring the trophy back north.

This week Magherafelt's winning captain Michaela Convery, now Michaela Hegarty, re-lived her final couple of years in the Convent looking at how her team came to be in a position to challenge and beat the elite from the other provinces.

"I think that we can only now appreciate our achievement. Since then we have seen other very good teams from Maghera, Magherafelt and more recently Cross and Passion, Ballycastle go toe to toe with the schools from other provinces and not make it.

"I don't suppose that they have put in any less effort than we did. Yet we made it across the line and they haven't repeated that.

"At the time we knew we had done something big for an Ulster school. But the longer we go without seeing another Ulster team do the same helps us realise just how much we managed to achieve."

Rather than focus on 2007 itself, Michaela, now a primary school teacher in her home town Randalstown, goes back to earlier in her school career as she looks for elements coming together to create the team that they became in her final year.

"The year group above us was strong and then our group came along and we won the under 14 championship in 2003.

"The year group below us also had a good mix of strong players as well. So St Mary's won three Junior (under 16 titles) in a row and I was the captain of my year group, the middle one.

"St Patrick's Maghera would have been big rivals with St Mary's for many years before us and then Cross and Passion Ballycastle were starting to come during our time. So we were getting tough enough games coming through Ulster.

"That Junior team that I captained had an All-Ireland semi-final at home against St Mary's Charleville and it was played on the school pitch which isn't enclosed and I can remember just a mass of people squeezed around the pitch.

"We went into the game much the same as probably a lot of other Ulster teams did before us and still do. We were going to try our best, but there was no expectation that we would win against a team from Cork.

"But we did win (2-3 to 1-3) and I think that was a real turning point for us mentally. We now started to believe that we were as good as any team in the country."

It didn't help the young Convent stars in the final though as they were beaten 3-10 to 1-6 by Presentation Athenry.

"Two years later when we met Athenry in the senior final, you could look back on the Junior final and see it as part of the learning curve. But losing the Junior after beating Charleville was a lesson in itself. It wasn't that we were complacent or anything.

"It maybe told us that we were not quite as good as we thought we were. On the one hand we were a team well in contention, but we needed to work harder to beat Athenry."

The management team that took them close to the top of the mountain was Raymond Kennedy and Orla Donnelly and they were also there to see them reach the summit in 2007 at senior level.

"They worked us really hard over the course of those three seasons.

"Orla was our PE teacher and she would have been quite strict and serious in her approach to everything we did, while with Raymond there might have been more banter at times. But when he switched to serious mode, we listened.

"Both of them would have taken skills' training. Raymond maybe would have been more focussed on tactics and team play. He was always looking at how we might do things better on the field and tactically he was very clever.

"But we might have spent a full training session doing just one drill, a tackling drill comes to mind. Orla would have been big into fitness and endurance work too.

"Between them they had us very well organised as a team, with players knowing exactly what their roles was. For example, as a half-forward, I had to pick up possession and drive forward for a score. I was only to pass the ball in if I couldn't burst through."

Turning to the panel and actual team, Michaela sees strong qualities everywhere.

"It was our choice to train hard and make as many sacrifices as we did, while our friends were enjoying 18th birthday parties and all. We trained on Boxing Day and New Year's Eve because we wanted to push forward.

"Because of the Junior final I think that we really believed that we could take the extra step with this group and that gave us determination. Having won three Ulster Juniors and two seniors in succession, we knew that the All-Ireland was the only thing that was left for us to break.

"In our defence you couldn't say that there was one or even two dominant players. They were all of a similar quality and their work-rate was phenomenal.

"Christine McKenna ended up at centre-half back and she was a fifth year. I remember her being a bit nervous about it, but once she was on the pitch she was so determined.

"Then you had Cathy Carey and Attracta McPeake in midfield. Attracta was our free-taker and she would have pushed forward while Cathy was more defensive minded. She was a real work-horse, but for someone quite small she had a great catch and could strike the ball very cleanly.

"The way Raymond and Orla had us set up there was a specific role for each of the forwards and it worked well.

"Sinéad McLaughlin got a lot of goals that campaign. She was deceptive on the pitch, she seemed to dander about uninterested and all of a sudden, when she had possession, she was able to get clear with her pace and hit the target."

McLaughlin scored 3-2 in the Ulster final against Cross and Passion in Dunloy as St Mary's won by 3-9 to 0-6.

That took them into an All-Ireland semi-final down in Wexford against ColáisteBhrídeEnniscorthy.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say that we were confident of beating Enniscorthy, but we knew going into the game that we were good enough to win and thankfully we did.

"So going into the final against Athenry we had built up a lot of self-belief. Now we had still to turn around a big score-line from two years before."

St Mary's worked hard on the training pitches to prepare for the final and they did well in that game except that they conceded goals.

"We knew about Noreen Coen and how dangerous she was. But in that drawn final she seemed to get possession and then really punish us with goals. She was harder to manage than we had expected.

"We still kept toe to toe with them and close to the end I got the equaliser. I can still picture it, taking possession out on the left wing about 45 metres out and just sticking it over the bar. I wouldn't try it now. But back then I just knew I could do it and that came from the training, the belief we had in ourselves."

There were two or three busloads of supporters went to the drawn game. That had swollen to eight or nine for the replay.

"Before the drawn game, we would have heard the usual scepticism; "Sure you were well beaten by them two years go", "Ulster camogie teams don't win All-Irelands".

And we got something similar after that game from outside the school for the replay. People would have said that we maybe had missed the boat.

"That missing the boat thing was picked up by Raymond and it was a big motivational factor for us going into the replay a couple of weeks later.

"We maybe had five or six training session before the replay and we focussed on how to work with Coen. Sarah Lennon from Kildress was moved over to mark her. Now Sarah had never played camogie before coming to St Mary's, but if you gave her a job, she could really stick to it.

"We also thought that we were a bit too nice and went into the replay intent on being more physical but not going over the line and giving away frees. When we looked at the score-line 0-11 to us and 3-2 to Athenry we felt that just a few tweaks here and there would be enough."

There was a bit of wind for the replay and the St Mary's picked off a few scores to get control, although a goal from Athenry reminded them that they still had a battle.

However goals from Sarah O'Kane and Eimear McKenna pushed them into a four point lead coming into the home straight. Another goal from Athenry. But McPeake responded with a couple of points and St Mary's had won 2-9 to 2-6.

"The only time I felt any panic was when they closed in with that second goal. But we were the better team and once Attracta got those couple of scores I knew we would win.

"You got the celebrations at the final whistle. The field was just a sea of light blue. There was a lot of emotion, but I really can't remember too much detail. I don't remember what I said in accepting the Cup.

"There was a lot of people around for a good while after. I had to do a few interviews and most of the girls had changed and left the changing rooms when I got back.

"The serious part of exams came on us soon after. But we did have a celebration dinner in the school and there was a civic reception for us in the Council Offices.

"As I said at the start, we knew we had achieved something big alright. But now 13 years on you see how big that really was."

Much as Michaela has enjoyed making history, 36 years after the only other Ulster triumph, she hopes another team will equal their achievements, sooner rather than later.

"Nothing would please us more if the Cup came back to Magherafelt and we became the first and not just the only St Mary's team to win it. But it also would be great if any Ulster school won the title. It is such a great feeling of achievement and fulfilment."

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Hurling and camogie