'It sort of feels like we lost it… it feels nearly like a loss more than a win': 2020 MacRory Cup final captains, a year on
St Patrick's Day 2020 was supposed to be special as Ethan Doherty and Sean O'Hare prepared to lead St Colman's, Newry and St Patrick's, Maghera into MacRory Cup final battle. The coronavirus outbreak ensured that game would never take place and, 12 months on, the two captains look back on the strangest of years…
IT should have been the biggest day of their young lives. Instead the shadow cast by the MacRory Cup final that never was looms large 12 months on, one of the most unfortunate casualties of the Covid-hit GAA calendar.
Ethan Doherty and Sean O’Hare need little reminding. On this date last year, as respective captains of Ulster schools heavyweights St Patrick’s, Maghera and St Colman’s, Newry, they were gearing up to lead their troops into battle at Armagh’s Athletic Grounds.
The stage was set for a provincial showpiece to remember, another St Patrick’s Day when stars are born and dreams fulfilled. That’s how it was supposed to be anyway.
On March 17, 2020 the gates of the Athletic Grounds remained closed. The MacRory final, initially delayed, then delayed again, would not take place at all.
When Doherty and O’Hare returned to Armagh last week, they posed for socially-distanced photographs to mark a solemn anniversary, the famous trophy between them at all times after it was eventually decided the schools should share it.
Although both understand the unprecedented circumstances which led them here, it still doesn’t feel like a satisfactory conclusion, and most likely never will.
“It definitely doesn’t feel like you’ve won it,” admits Doherty, a Watty Graham’s, Glen clubman.
“We’ve won stuff along the way, Dalton and Rannafast, and you get to celebrate after the game but with this, we didn’t get to celebrate or have the cup to ourselves or anything.
“It sort of feels like we lost it… it feels nearly like a loss more than a win.”
“The boys would rather have it played, even if we lost – just to see what the outcome would be,” adds O’Hare.
“Sharing it… you don’t want to share it with anyone else. In the long run I’m sure we’ll be happy to have a MacRory medal, but you’d obviously want the cup to yourself.”
That is now, but what about then?
Thursday, March 12 2020 – this was the day when nightmare became reality, the severity of the evolving global situation finally landing on these shores after months of warning.
For two groups of teenagers with only one thing on their minds, it is a moment they will never forget.
“We were to be off on the Friday then it was the weekend, off Monday, game Tuesday,” recalls O’Hare, a rising star of St Peter’s, Warrenpoint.
“It was after lunch, we were in the PE hall and there were people coming down to Mr Murray’s office to see what the craic was. There were rumours going about by that stage - is it on? Is it not?
“And then we found out. We were all on a high after beating St Pat’s, Armagh in the Athletic Grounds, we were buzzing after that game, couldn’t wait to get back there. But then when we got the news … like, Paddy’s Day, that’s the day you want to play a MacRory final.
“Even if it was another date along the line, it still wasn’t going to be the same.”
Just as the St Colman’s pupils congregated outside Cathal Murray’s office, the Maghera boys were brought together by MacRory joint manager Paul Hughes. They had heard the whispers but, when the news came, there was no softening the blow.
“We didn’t know a whole lot about it [coronavirus], we were just focusing on what we could do at the time,” says Doherty, “but as it got closer you realised it was getting serious.
“We had the last training done, we were ready to go, then in the days leading up to that you were seeing stuff on Twitter. That was our last day in school, when we were told it was called off… everyone sort of knew by then.
“They didn’t need to be told.”
Talk initially turned to a possible date in April, once this whole thing had blown over. That seems naïve now, though no-one could fully have appreciated what we were in for over the course of the next 12 months and more.
A window of opportunity came and went during the summer too, before a provisional date of October 9 was set. But then, at the end of September, came the dreaded news that plans to reschedule the MacRory and MacLarnon Cups had been shelved.
“After October passed,” says Doherty, “you just knew that was it. There was no chance.”
To quantify the level of disappointment, you need to understand the history and tradition of both schools when it comes to MacRory Cup football.
St Colman’s and St Patrick’s, Maghera sat at the top of the pile with 19 and 15 titles respectively, prior to last year’s shared crown. So many of those who have represented both have gone on to monumental achievements at club and county level, yet those school successes remained something special.
For the class of 2020, the opportunity to join those ranks was denied. And it hurts, even now.
“Everybody was disappointed. Mr Murray, Rony Mac [Ronan McMahon], Mr Doyle, they put a lot of effort in, though at least they’ve got the experience before. We haven’t,” says O’Hare.
“That’s why you wanted to go to St Colman’s. In 2010 my cousin, Shay McCartan, won a MacRory and a Hogan. I was watching him lifting those trophies and that was the buzz, that was what you wanted to achieve.
“It’s well and good the other competitions you play in thought the years but really, you always know in the back of your head, the MacRory is the big one.
“The pictures of all the teams that have won it are up on the wall in the corridors. That would be a big thing in the College, and for these boys.
“This group hadn’t won any Ulster competitions on the way through, so before leaving that’s all you wanted – just to get on that wall. Now we are on the wall, even if we only shared it.”
Doherty’s ties run even deeper.
In 2014 and 2016 he watched on with pride as older brother Jack was part of the St Patrick’s side that swept past Omagh CBS and St Paul’s, Bessbrook. Another brother, Alex, was on the 2016 panel too.
One day, he thought, one day…
“From first year you know MacRory is the biggest stage.
“In 2016 myself and all the other boys went to that game on the bus, all the flags and the chants… you knew what it meant. You knew it was a massive moment for the school and you always wanted to experience that.
“And then when it came to be our turn, we were just unfortunate. We were well prepared, we were just ready to go - we were 100 per cent confident in ourselves that we were going to go and get it done.”
And yet, 12 months on, here they stand.
Having squared off through the years, it had been slightly awkward when Doherty and O’Hare were brought together for a press call at Custom House Square in Belfast weeks before the original St Patrick’s Day date.
“We’d have marked each other at different times,” recalls O’Hare, “it was moreso for the older teams we would’ve played, the year above. He’d always have been wing half-forward where I was wing half-back.”
Now, though, they are on the same side. Or, at least, they hope to be some day.
The 19-year-olds are both students at Ulster University, Doherty studying marketing and advertising, O’Hare quantity surveying. In keeping with the strangeness of the times, neither has been near the Jordanstown campus yet, nor met or spoken with class-mates other than via Zoom.
“Ah it’s brutal to be fair,” sighs Doherty.
He had always planned to travel up and down from Maghera anyway, but O’Hare and some friends from St Colman’s are paying rent for a house in the Stranmillis area of Belfast that they’ve hardly been in.
“Thankfully Arlene’s helping us out at the end of this month,” he laughs as student bank balances across the north eagerly await the arrival of a welcome £500 top up courtesy of a Covid disruption payment.
A year of Freshers football has already been missed although, in confirming that third level competitions would not take place this academic year, Higher Education GAA chairperson Michael Hyland said they hoped to stage second year competitions for this year’s new crop in a bid to make up for lost time.
The hope is that they might be able to finally experience campus life, and a return to the field, in their second year, though ongoing uncertainty guards against raised expectations.
“It’s definitely not what you would have expected,” says O’Hare.
“You’d have been hoping to be in class rather than on a computer but that’s just the way it is at the minute. Missing out on Freshers is disappointing too, but hopefully we can get something next year.
“We just have to see how things go over the summer and take it from there.”
“You’re just in the house really, you’re not out and about, you’re not meeting people. It’s just been weird,” adds Doherty.
“All you want is just some of normality again. That’s all we can hope for now.”