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There's another Holy Grail further up the road for county champions

Armagh Harps ace Ultan Lennon sums up that winning feeling

AT this time of year there are always new chapters being written into the annals of club history books in the GAA.

Last weekend, there were three stand-out stories in Ulster.

Armagh Harps ended a 26-year wait for a senior county title and Lámh Dhearg were crowned champions of Antrim for the first time in 25 years.

In Donegal, Kilcar's wait was an agonising 24 years.

In the fading light in the Cathedral City, I'd the good fortune to witness Armagh Harps overcoming defending champions Maghery in an enthralling Armagh county final.

It was a long time coming.

They'd reached the 2009 final but lost to Pearse Ogs.

In more recent times, they ran into a rampant Crossmaglen Rangers team in the 2014 and 2015 deciders and were beaten out the gate.

After the final whistle, Harps veteran and county ace Charlie Vernon summed it up best what it meant to be the proud owner of a county championship medal.

“You put your heart and soul into it for a long, long time and it didn't come off for us,” he explained.

“We were up against quality teams during that time.

“This is my fourth final and it makes all the heartache worthwhile. It's very special to win with your club because it's the guys you grew up with, the guys you live beside and you know them inside out. It's just a really special day and a special feeling.”

There was a nice symmetry to the day for manager John Toner as it was his winning point that won the last county title for the Harps in 1991, also against Maghery.

Up in Glenavy, former Antrim forward Paddy Cunningham spoke movingly about the importance of winning a county championship.

"You are in a bubble playing county football and you are only worried about looking after yourself and being the best you can be," he stated.

"But we were saying - they were making a couple of speeches and whatever - it was about the kids in that hall. At the end of the day, our days are numbered in terms of playing for Lámh Dhearg but they are the future.

"It's great, I have a Championship myself now and hopefully it will push Pádraig [his son] and his peers on forward and it won't be as long for the next Championship to come up the hill.”

When you consider these rich narratives around the country it makes the inter-county scene seem too choreographed, corporate, sponsor-driven and increasingly anodyne in texture.

The club scene has a stronger pulse. You feel the game more.

It's easier to have empathy for the club player who, in many instances, has climbed as many mountains as the county player but far away from the media's glare.

For clubs like Armagh Harps and Lámh Dhearg, winning a county title after a famine period is like reaching the Holy Grail.

And when you reach the Holy Grail where else is there to go?

Some older members of the team may happily walk off into the sunset with a medal they've chased for half their lives safely tucked away and never to compete at senior level again.

The ravaged joints and scars of old battles are no burden at all to the retired footballer who owns a championship medal.

Almost by definition, the Holy Grail is the end of a journey, a satisfying conclusion after one thousand training sessions.

For the younger members of the panel, the after-glow of a championship win is something to be savoured.

One night of celebrations can lead into another night of celebrations.

But then, of course, the Ulster Club Championship is just over the horizon.

For county champions, they can count on one hand the training sessions before they're out on a field they've probably never played on before, facing an opponent they don't know that much about.

Can't we bathe in this place called the Holy Grail for a little while longer?

Pressing the reset button must be extremely difficult for players, managers and coaches for clubs who have either ended a barren run or have just claimed a first-ever county title in their history.

If you're not ready for it, the provincial championships will eat you up.

Rather than viewing the Ulster Club Championship as another two weeks training and one more game before winter settles in, the ambitious player will keep driving forwards.

There is a big, wide open highway of opportunity for the province's county champions this autumn.

Derrgonnelly, Armagh Harps, Cavan Gaels and Lamh Dhearg find themselves on one side of the draw.

One of these four clubs will find themselves in an Ulster final on November 26.

Which one of these clubs will stand up and grasp the opportunity?

Which team is content with their county medal?

Which team extended their post-final celebrations by a few extra days?

Which group of players knuckled down quicker?

Which players are currently trying to convince themselves that they want to climb another mountain in the dying embers of 2017?

Who sees more road in front of them?

The Ulster Club Championship is one of the greatest competitions in the GAA because it moulds good teams into better teams and good players into better players.

The Ulster Club Championship tests teams, managers and players to the absolute limit.

It's the kind of unforgiving canvas that shows up every single blemish.

It's a competition that can make you better.

It's the kind of competition you have to be ready for.

There's another Holy Grail further up the road...

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