Darragh Cross ready to launch new chapter with first SFC clash

Darragh Cross will play their first-ever game in the Down Senior Football Championship tonight, taking on last year's semi-finalists Ballyholland
Darragh Cross will play their first-ever game in the Down Senior Football Championship tonight, taking on last year's semi-finalists Ballyholland

Morgan Fuels Down Senior Football Championship: Ballyholland v Darragh Cross (tonight, 7.30pm, Kilcoo)

PAT McMahon will be a proud man when Darragh Cross make their first-ever foray into the Down Senior Football Championship in Kilcoo tonight.

From where they were when he came into the senior team in the late 1980s, it seemed unthinkable they would ever reach this stage. Then, Darragh Cross were struggling at the bottom end of Division Four, with football on the cusp of falling by the wayside altogether.

And McMahon, now club chairman, well remembers “the dark old days”.

“A lot of our senior team now would be in their late teens, early/mid-20s with the odd fella in their 30s, so none of them would remember back then,” he says.

“When I came in, we were probably about the second worst team in Down. I played six years senior football for Darragh before we even won a junior championship game, that’s how poor we were.

“In 1991 our senior football team was all but done. We hadn’t fielded in the last four or five matches of the league, hurling had taken preference in the club and all the efforts seemed to be going towards hurling.

“But there was a nucleus of good minor players had come through, and we wanted to play football.”

The Darragh Cross football revival was kick-started when Thomas Mageean asked Loughinisland native Gerry O’Prey to try and galvanise the club. Within two years they had reached a junior championship final – “completely unheard of for us” – and helped Darragh Cross secure promotion to Division Three.

“Gerry was a revelation –probably 15 years ahead of his time.

“He came in when we were at a very low ebb and started trying to make football number one.

I remember him coming to a training session and asking us what our club colours were. We were like ‘green and white’ – what’s this boy on about?

“But he went round us, ‘well why are you wearing a Saintfield AYC top? Why are you wearing a Kilmore Rec top? Why are you wearing Liverpool shorts? You look like a patchwork quilt.’

He went to the committee and told them if we were going to be a team, we were going to look like a team. If you didn’t take to the pitch in your club colours, you didn’t play.

“Wee things like that just changed the mindset, and gradually you saw when boys put the effort in and trained properly, we had the makings of a good team. After we got promoted, we made steady progression from there.”

A talented crop of players including the likes of Marcus Miskelly, John McCarthy, Hugh Murray, Padraig and Eoin Mageean helped push the club into Division Two during the Noughties and, despite a few bumps in the road, they have since consolidated their position in Down’s second tier.

Under the management of Tempo native Paul Murphy and Dessie McNeill, tonight’s game against Ballyholland represents another piece of history, and another pathway to progress. It has been some journey so far but, McMahon hopes, one that he hopes is only just beginning to gather pace.

“We’ve been in Division Two for eight years now, we’ve consolidated there and the next step now is to move up to Division One. That has to be the ultimate goal for us.

“Championship is very much a win-win situation for us because it lifts the profile a wee bit in the local area - Ballyholland would be raging hot favourites, but we’ll go and give it a crack.”