Glen have proven their mental toughness insists Connor Carville as they eye All-Ireland glory

Connor Carville of Watty Graham’s Glen, pictured ahead of the AIB All-Ireland Senior Football Club Championship Final, which takes place on Sunday at Croke Park Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Paul Keane

THERE are only 20 miles between the two clubs but Lough Neagh will split the Dunloy and Glen traffic on Sunday morning, so the two green and yellow convoys may not merge until somewhere around Newry.

Glen captain Connor Carville jokes that he isn't so sure in which line of traffic you will find his girlfriend, the procession of cars from Glen or Dunloy.

She's from Dunloy, you see, and the half and half jersey she has had made up for the occasion reflects her joint interests in the double header of AIB All-Ireland club senior finals.

Who would have thought it, two relatively neighbouring clubs, albeit split by the Derry/Antrim county boundary, present on the biggest day of the club calendar.

"They're hurling-mad up there," smiled Carville of Dunloy folk. "There would actually be a lot of links between Dunloy and Maghera with people married in."

Each of the clubs is attempting to break new ground. Dunloy's tale of woe in All-Ireland finals is hard to escape; if they lose to Ballyhale Shamrocks then they'll join Rathnure of Wexford as the club with the most final defeats, five.

Glen, meanwhile, carried a chip on their shoulder for decades over their failure to land even a county title. Whether it was true or not, they believed they were seen as soft and of lacking substance.

So when defender Carville got his hands on the Seamus McFerran Cup after last month's Ulster final triumph, all of those old insecurities came flooding out on the podium.

"For years, people said Glen had no character, that we are underachievers, we are mentally weak, and no leaders," he cried. "Today, we are kings of Ulster!" Six weeks on, an hour from being crowned the best team in Ireland, he isn't backing away from those comments but accepts it was an easy war cry.

"You would have heard people telling you before that Glen would never win a championship, that we had no leaders and we were mentally weak," he said. "I suppose at times as well you exaggerate these things and try to use them for your own benefit and for your own motivation.

"In fairness, Glen hadn't won anything. We hadn't won any county titles at senior level and people were probably justified in saying that we were all those things that I had said. But I don't think they can say that now."

It's a fair point and one they hope to ram home by replicating what Kilcoo did last February by beating favourites Kilmacud in the All-Ireland decider. As much as days like these seemed so far off only a few years ago, it makes perfect sense that the club is thriving given the underage success enjoyed by Glen teams over the years. The four-in-a-row of Ulster minor titles between 2011 and 2014 isn't the beginning of it from Carville's perspective. He traces their growth mindset right back to his earliest days.

"A big factor is that a lot of the lads grew up together and would be very close with each other," explained the 28-year-old.

"I remember coming home from school, I'd fire the schoolbag away and run over to Emmet Bradley's house. Emmet, Ryan Dougan, Michael Warnock and myself would all be battering into eachother in the backyard, playing football non-stop."

Carville didn't realise it but something similar was going on elsewhere in Maghera at the same time.

"There's a row of about eight houses in Maghera called Hall Street and probably five of our panel came from that row of houses," he said. "They were rattling into each other in their backyards as well."

To harness all of that potential the club decided to put an increased emphasis on kicking and tackling, two absolute fundamentals of the game.

"You can still see that we're good at tackling, which is something we would focus on," said Carville.

"The way the game has changed in recent years, you don't get as many opportunities to kick the ball. But they were definitely two of the big focuses for Glen."

Conor Glass has brought a little chutzpah to the arrangement, Malachy O'Rourke and his management team the poise and expert preparation. And here they are now, an hour from matching what Ballinderry, Lavey and Bellaghy famously did in the past and what, just as significantly, great sides from Ballerin and Slaughtneil didn't.

"With Glen never having won a county title before (2021), winning a county title was always our big aim," said Carville.

"We didn't allow ourselves to think very far beyond that. Once we won that first one in 2021, you were then thinking, 'Right, where can we go from here?' All we want to do is try to realise our potential. It has got us this far and we'll see if it can take us any further."