Kickham's Creggan still reaching for the Holy Grail: Ruairi McCann
AFTER the 2018 and 2020 county championship finals, everyone was left wondering would Kickham’s Creggan ever reach the Holy Grail?
This should be their time, came the refrain.
This group of players - the Smalls, the McCanns, the Johnstons - all carefully moulded by the underage structures since they were knee-high is without doubt one of the best the club has produced.
It depends on who you talk to at the Kickham’s – but each will say the 2018 and 2020 finals were ones that got away.
Instead of having just two championship titles against their names – 1943 and 1954 – they would argue it should be four.
Three years ago, guided by former Antrim ace Kevin Madden, they kicked themselves out of the decider and Cargin’s craft and cuteness won a terrible spectacle on a 0-5 to 0-4 score-line.
Twelve months ago, the pair collided again at the same stage of the competition.
Cargin trailed their neighbours at different stages in what turned out to be an exhilarating spectacle.
A point down entering the second period of extra-time, Damian Cassidy’s men somehow pulled the game out of the fire to claim an historic three-in-a-row.
More ecstasy for Erin's Own. More heartbreak for the Kickham’s.
No question Creggan, now coached by brothers Gerard and Thomas McNulty and Peter McCollum, are good enough to win a senior championship and their gargantuan efforts and skill over the last few seasons are offered up as compelling evidence.
But all it takes is for just one team to be better than you in any given championship season.
Cargin are that team, and are currently the stone in everybody's shoe in Antrim.
Ruairi McCann played in both the 2018 and 2020 finals and finished a runner-up.
In last September's decider, played under a baking hot sun in Portglenone, McCann was outstanding.
A constant thorn in Cargin’s side, the county ace was uncontainable from start to finish - hitting eight points in a memorable individual display.
All Cargin could do was limit the supply to the roving half-forward.
“It’s a difficult thing to look back on last year’s final,” McCann admits, “because, unfortunately, performance is a minor detail whenever you don’t get over the line. So it’s very hard to think back to that day and come away with many positives.
“Obviously it was a cracking game the way it unfolded. The fact that it went to extra-time allowed you to get into a good rhythm, performance-wise, that’s how things happened for me.
“I suppose the difficult thing is you think about those days more than the wins.”
The temptation afterwards was to say Creggan couldn’t have given more. But only they could.
Both finalists scored high in effort and determination; in terms of game-management, Cargin scored higher – and that was the difference on the scoreboard.
A well taken goal from veteran attacker Ciaran Close towards the end of an epic match was the score that finally broke Creggan resistance.
“Big games like that, a lot of it comes down to the small things and therefore your concentration is what’s most important,” McCann says, who went on to have an excellent year with the county team.
“Can we execute something slightly better? One bobbled through the hands, can that one be caught next time? There’s a chance that hit the post; can that actually go over the bar the next time?
“You think about those smaller things. If you think about the game more broadly and because the game went on so long both teams had purple patches. So when you’re analysing how you can get better you have to analyse when the other team was on top and where you can improve.
“Cargin hit four or five points before we even scored at the start of the game, so it took us a while to wake up and realise that we were in a final. If you’d want anything back from that game, it would be to execute better from the first whistle.
“It’s a focus and concentration thing for the entirety of the game, both attacking and defensively.”
It’s a slightly morbid question to ask a player which final defeat was worse – 2018 or 2020, but McCann happily indulges the enquiry.
“In my mind, they’re difficult for different reasons – bearing in mind we’re talking about football matches here – but especially getting to the last hurdle and losing out by such a small margin."
He adds: “I think the greatest disappointment was in the performance in the first final where we kicked something like 16 or 17 wides. The game was low-scoring but it was low-scoring because we couldn’t put the ball over the bar. That’s the long and short of it.
“We turned up to the final and we didn’t bring our ‘A’ game. Then if you flip that to the final last year it’s nearly the opposite and the disappointment comes from we did play well [and didn’t win]. The performance was good but it wasn’t good enough. I would say the hurt of those two finals is still a raw feeling when you think back.”
In the 2019, Creggan faded badly and bowed meekly out of the championship to Lamh Dhearg.
The 2021 season couldn’t be any more different – at least to date – with Gerard McNulty’s side already wrapping up their quarter-final berth with three straight Group Four wins over St Gall’s (twice) and Gort na Mona, with their final game against the latter on October 3.
“I think performances reinforce your belief,” he says.
“You gain in belief from each event. In the first final, the last five minutes got away from us whereas when you compare it to last year’s final, in the last minute we had the ball, you’re a couple of plays away from winning the championship. That’s the part that haunts you. While that’s a negative, I suppose you have to take confidence from it but that’s probably all you can take from it.
“I think I watched last year's final back maybe two days later nursing a bit of a sore head. If you’re looking at one of the protagonists ahead of us, if we want to win a championship you have to watch that game as much as it sucks to watch it to learn from it.”
In spite of everything and the renowned rivalry between Cargin and Creggan, McCann has great admiration as to how Cassidy’s side go about their business.
“When people talk about game-management they’re often referring to protecting a lead or managing the last 10 minutes of a game.
“I think Cargin’s greatest attribute is the ability micro-manage every situation for 60 or 70 minutes and in the same way St Gall’s used to do.
“Cargin have a lot of players with a breadth of experience and I think that shows. Within that they have a number of players who are extremely talented. You mix together a team that’s very good on the ball and doesn’t concede possession easily with a defensive work-rate littered with talent, offensive talent, it becomes a complete team.
“Whenever you play any team you have to show them a certain amount of respect. When that team has won three championships in a row then that garners more respect.
“You’ve respect for how good they are and what they’ve achieved and then that gives you your target. Every conversation about the Antrim championship starts with the team that’s won it the last three years, so you have to look at it through that lens.”
For McCann, the perfect pick-me-up in 2020 was to throw himself into county action. Although he’d been around the county set-up under four different managers he was probably never more primed for making an impact.
With a fresh pair of eyes, new Antrim boss Enda McGinley invited McCann into the camp and he ended up playing every minute of every League and Championship game.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Antrim struggled to overcome Mickey Harte’s Louth team in Haggardstown in their opening Division Four North game of the season. And so, too, did McCann.
“I finished the Louth game and I wondered how I ended up staying on the pitch the whole time,” he admits.
“In the first 35 minutes I was thinking I need to buck up my ideas; you’re looking over your shoulder. With Enda and the boys beneath him you get a great sense that they believe in your ability and I felt that personally.
“Maybe part of that came from Enda and the boys watching the Antrim championship before they took over the role. I suppose you appreciate when the manager is invested in you and is prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt. Thinking back to that Louth game, I was able to do a few things towards the end when it really mattered and as the year went on I didn’t miss a single minute of the season.”
But for the next few weeks Kickham’s Creggan have one objective: reaching the Holy Grail. The fact that they haven’t won a senior title in 67 years doesn’t in itself weigh heavily on the players.
“It’s probably not something you think about in terms of the number,” McCann says.
“People have talked about how long it’s been since Creggan won a championship. I think the history of your club in general and where you’re from kind of weighs on you.
“You play for enjoyment, first and foremost and you play for the people who have kind of made you into who you are – your family and the Creggan club plays a massive part in how boys and girls grow up, so rather than history weighing on you, it’s the club itself, every time you put on the jersey your goal is to bring that jersey another step forward from where it was before.”
The Kickham’s are getting closer.
POSSESSION, it seems, is 10-tenths of the law. Even though the quality of the chasing pack is often lauded, the Antrim senior football championship appears to be Cargin’s to lose again.
On paper, their group of O’Donovan Rossa, St John’s and Moneyglass seemed to be one of the tougher ones, but Damian Cassidy’s men breezed to the top of the group unbeaten, stress-free and are already preparing for the quarter-finals with one game remaining in the round robin stages.
Michael Magill has done a fine impersonation job of absent goalkeeper John McNabb while Tomas McCann is flying fit and in brilliant scoring form. Throw in Pat Shivers, John McCarron, fit-again Mick McCann and the Cargin spine looks as impenetrable as ever with Cassidy’s biggest job keeping complacency from the door.
So far Cassidy has done a brilliant job this season. But the gradient on the road will get a bit tougher from here on in.
Creggan are motoring along nicely and can look forward to a quarter-final against erratic Belfast sides St John’s or Rossa, while Aghgallon have shown that they have the tenacity and attacking power to cause an upset with Adam Loughran catching the eye.
And what of Lamh Dhearg? This group of players will feel that they under-achieved if they finish their careers with just one county championship . St Gall’s are still in transition and you’re not quite sure which St Enda’s team is going to turn up from one game to the next.
No matter what angle you look at the group stages from, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Creggan and Cargin look the best placed.
Cargin are taken to stay one step ahead of the chasing pack in 2021.