Third shot at the Hogan Cup for St Michael's manager Dominic Corrigan
HE intends to retire in “another year or two” and if that is the case then winning today's Hogan Cup would be a fitting legacy for Dominic Corrigan, Fermanagh's football guru and manager of St Michael's College, Enniskillen, to leave behind.
Today is not about him of course and ‘Dom' would be the first to tell you that. It's about young men like Brandon Horan, Micheal Glynn, Conor Love, Darragh McBrien and Josh Largo-Ellis who captured the MacRory Cup and then beat St Colman's, Claremorris to deservedly clinch a place in this afternoon's decider against Naas CBS.
Those players are the latest to benefit from Corrigan's astute management and keen football brain. In his two decades at the Drumclay Hill college, he has delivered five MacRory Cups – more than any other school in that period and he enjoys his job as much now as when he started in 1999.
“Nothing beats working with young players who are talented and always willing to learn and try things out,” says Corrigan.
“It's a wonderful arena for players and I feel it's a great arena for coaches as well.
“I remember talking to Adrian McGuckian away back years ago and he was saying his most enjoyable football was in colleges. I can see now why he said that.
“It's the innocence of youth and boys looking to get themselves onto the big stage for the first time. For these boys, this is the biggest stage that they'll have ever played on and it's wonderful for them to have this opportunity. That's what playing at college level does for you, it presents players with opportunities they wouldn't get elsewhere and it gives them the springboard to push on to the county senior scene further down the line.
“The lessons they learn in the college scene and certainly through MacRory Cup football, are valuable lessons that will take them very far.”
Success in Ulster has come regularly for St Michael's but the Hogan Cup crown eluded Corrigan and his charges in the finals of 2002 (the school's debut at that level) and 2012. Today he'll be joined in the dugout by Conor Laverty (Kilcoo and Down) and Tyrone's Richie Donnelly and he's confident his team has all the tools required to finally land the title. Success could boil down to how they react to the Croke Park stage.
“This team is well capable of delivering,” he says.
“I'm happy that we've played Naas in a pre-season friendly so I know what we're facing – we're facing a really, really good side.
“It's always good going into a game with knowledge of the other team and having played them at the end of January means we know what's coming down the line at us and that is important.
“It ended up a draw that day in Virginia in Cavan before our quarter-final against the Abbey. They gave us a bit of lesson in the first half and we gave them a bit of a lesson in the second half and it ended up all-square at the finish.
“It was a high-scoring draw and from our forwards' point-of-view we were delighted but from a defensive point-of-view… Not so much. Both teams scored three or four goals and points were in double-figures as well.
“I said to Ronan Joyce, their manager: ‘Maybe we might meet further down the line?' and that's the way it has turned out. Both teams will have learned a lot form each other that day and we will be looking to put the lessons we got that day into good practice.”
St Michael's trained in spring sunshine on Monday and, 24 hours later, it was pelting it down in Enniskillen.
“I'm glad I'm not out there today,” said Corrigan, as the rain hammered off the window.
“Maybe the Gods are smiling on us? Hopefully they'll keep at it until Saturday evening and I'll be happy.”
Those Gods have turned their backs on St Michael's in Croke Park so far. In 2002 there was a 3-13 to 0-6 loss to St Jarlath's, Tuam and, a decade later, Offaly's St Mary's sent the Ulster champions home well beaten and disappointed.
The class of 2019 has the ability to end that losing run and this talented group includes a clutch of scoring forwards who have the ability to flourish in the lush green expanse of Croke Park.
“We've been there before and we didn't get across the line,” former Fermanagh player and manager Corrigan recalls.
“Croke Park on final day is a lonely spot when you lose. Finals are there to be won and there are no prizes for second.
“There's a great buzz around the school, massive excitement and everybody is looking forward to going down to Croke Park and hopefully producing a big, big performance which will be required.
“Thankfully we have a good, grounded group of lads and there is always more hype surrounding the MacRory Cup final rather than the Hogan, even though it's the All-Ireland one.
“For Ulster schools, nothing is going to be as high a profile as a MacRory Cup final so there's not that same hype or level of attention as there was for the Omagh CBS match and in a way that's a good thing.
“The boys showed in their preparation for the MacRory final that they didn't let the hype run away with them and it is always a case of focussing on the performance and letting everyone else worry about the occasion. It's the same for this weekend – the Croke Park factor is an issue, for us it's about getting in there and performing in it and that's what we're looking forward to.”
In the MacRory Cup final, St Michael's raced out of the traps and led Omagh CBS by eight points at half-time. The Tyrone students battled back in the second half and made a fist of it until Corrigan's charges found an extra gear and pulled ahead to win comfortably.
It was the same story in the Hogan semi-final against Claremorris. St Michael's led by 10 points in the first half but the Mayo men closed to within a point before St Michael's pulled away to win by six.
“We were disappointed with the third quarter of the MacRory final,” Corrigan admitted.
“We felt that we had it addressed for the semi-final last Saturday and we were 10 points up and then got reeled back in again.
“That is a concern and we cannot afford that against Naas because, if you give a team like that momentum for a 10-minute period they will do untold damage. Claremorris could have done a bit more damage in that period when they were totally on top and so could Omagh, so there are valuable lessons to be learned from those games.
“They are aspects of our game that we've looked at because if you quiet periods like that at Croke Park you could be out the gate very quickly.”
St Michael's have scoring forwards but Naas will feel they have the firepower to match them. The Kildare students hit 20 points to blow away Kerry's Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne in their semi-final and Michael McGovern led the way with seven points so a free-flowing final looks to be on the cards.
“We have players with great pace, great footballers and I hope that the wide, open spaces of Croke Park will be ideally suited to them,” said Corrigan.
“It is an unforgiving place for any player who lacks that bit of pace and mobility but our team has plenty of both and plenty of good players who can stand up and express themselves on the biggest stage of all.
“That's the challenge for them but at the same time we have to realise that they're only 17-18 year-old young lads so we'll be doing everything we can to keep them nice and relaxed and, at the end of the day, it's a game of football after all so we can't be getting too tied up. We need to go down and perform, that's the key.
“Any day you go out you want the players to perform and not let the occasion or any nerves impact on their performance.
“Certainly, these boys have shown in the Ulster final and even in the MacRory semi-final against Maghera that they can step up when they get setbacks in games.
“They have shown resilience and great character and inner-belief that, irrespective of what's thrown at them, they keep playing and they are the qualities, as well as their footballing talent, that will be called upon again.
“We know going into his final that we have that and that's a great plus.”