GAA Football

Ciaran Close in seventh heaven as Cargin make it an historic three-in-a-row

Cargin's Ciaran Close (left) tries to stop Creggan's Ricky Johnston in Sunday's final Picture: Hugh Russell

ANTRIM final goal hero Ciaran Close never imagined he’d be part of a Cargin three-in-a-row team and thought his playing days were over after the Erin’s Own club fell short of winning a hat-trick of titles in 2017.

The veteran attacker was sprung from the bench in last Sunday’s memorable final against neighbours Creggan and he ended up scoring the decisive goal in the second period of extra-time against his brother-in-law and Kickhams goalkeeper Oisin Kerr.

Close’s well-taken major in the 73rd minute finally broke Creggan’s stout resistance and Cargin celebrated their first-ever three-in-a-row. They went desperately close to achieving this historic feat in 2017 but came unstuck against St John’s in the semi-finals.

“When we were going for three-in-a-row the last time and we lost to St John’s I must have stayed out on the pitch for about 20 minutes crying my eyes out because I thought that was me finished,” said Close.

But once Bellaghy man Damian Cassidy replaced John Brennan ahead of the 2018 season, the new manager insisted Close still had a key role to play despite being in the twilight of his playing career.

While he wouldn’t be starting many more championship games for Cargin, the former county ace still had plenty to offer the team.

“My wife and I have a young family. She works shifts and I couldn’t actually see where I was getting the time to commit to training when Damian took over,” Close explained.

“I spoke to Damian and he said: ‘Make no rash decisions yet. Let me come round and speak to you.’

“Damian spoke to me and said: ‘I don’t need to see you February March, April or May. Go and play the odd reserve game, keep yourself ticking over and come out at the start of June and give me 10 or 12 solid weeks training for the championship.

“It’s also a mental thing for me as well because I had to realise I wasn't going to start games. I wasn't going to be the 'star attraction'. And that was difficult but I wanted to be part of it rather than not be part of it. The first year Damian was here I had serious injury problems and I was coming on and playing a bit-part.

“Last year, I came on and scored a goal and two points against St Gall’s in the semi-final and I came on in the final replay against Lamh Dhearg and I think I scored four or five points. And I’ve scored in this year’s final.”

The 38-year-old added: “I think it was the Dublin manager [Jim Gavin] who said it’s all about starters and finishers; it’s not substitutes.

“That’s a mind-set you have to develop and that’s something I’ve developed. I know I’m going to finish games. Damian told me at the start of this final: ‘The second-half water-break make sure you’re ready to go,’ and thankfully I was.”

With Creggan leading by a point, Jamie Gribbin found Close with a looping fist pass and the veteran attacker peeled away from the defence to plant the ball in the bottom corner of the net with his trusted left foot.

“Thankfully one of the things that’s stuck with me is that yard of pace,” said Close.

“If I didn’t have that yard of pace I would have nothing anymore because I don’t have 30 or 40 minutes of championship football in me but I have that yard of pace where I can get away from men and get the ball over the bar.”

Close had a glorious chance to raise another green flag just moments after rippling the Creggan net but somehow screwed his effort over the bar.

“It’s funny, if you speak to anyone in Cargin – my second goal opportunity speaks volumes – nobody thinks I can score goals. If there’s an open net, I’ll stick it over the bar. Everybody will tell you that.

“But, funnily enough, in training the other night we did a three forwards against two defenders and I said to myself: ‘I’ve scored about 10 goals here’, and I just seemed to develop an eye for it on Friday night.

“Once the chance came I just looked at the corner and hit it as hard as I could.”

Close has now won seven senior county titles, the first of them coming an incredible 20 years ago, in 2000, which says something about the player’s staying power.

“This title is up there with the best of them. That’s as hard-fought a game as we’ve had in a final, even the Lamh Dhearg game last year. And there is that added element when it is your close neighbours.

“We’re married amongst each other, we’re friends, family. Believe it or not, the goal I scored was against my brother-in-law. There might be a few choice words in the house over the next few days but it’s business.

“I wouldn’t wish a championship medal against any of those Creggan guys, but the game was there to be won. I’ve had some good times and some bad times with Cargin, as we know, but that was icing on the cake right there.”

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