GAA Football

Reigning champions Maghery begin defence of Gerry Fegan Cup against Armagh Harps

You shall not pass. Oisin Lappin tackles Gavin McParland of Ballymacnab. Pic Ian Maginess

IN his early days it was sink or swim and Maghery sank before Oisin Lappin and his mates learned how to keep their heads above water.

Lappin made his debut for the Sean McDermott's as a 17-year-old back in 2007. The retirements of a clutch of senior players meant he had to be thrown into the front line alongside other young hopefuls like his brother Ronan, Kevin Nugent, David Lavery, Steven Fox and Aidan Forker, who joined elder brother Stefan in the senior ranks.

Where they ready? No. Maghery were relegated in the first season but the young lads found their feet and from there began the steady climb that has taken them to the very top of the club game in Armagh.

The small club on the loughshore had been to four senior finals and lost them all before 2016 when they finally captured the Gerry Fegan Cup and, after they repeated that success last year, they begin the defence of their title tomorrow night against Armagh Harps, the side that ended their run as champions in 2017.

Lappin can trace his roots in football to Maghery's rivals across the River Bann: High Moss Sarsfields. That's where his grandfather Edward and his great-uncle Patsy formed the midfield and the reason for that is down to the unusual geography along the shore of Lough Neagh.

“You can see Sarsfields' pitch from my house but it would take you 25 minutes to drive there,” Oisin explains.

“You can row across the river in 30 seconds, so my granda and my great-uncle did that and jumped out, walked across a field and went to Mass there and played football there.”

Maghery was always Oisin's club when he started out in the blue and yellow jersey, winning two senior championships would have seemed like an impossible dream especially after his first season ended with relegation. At the time it hurt, but the drop down a level was a blessing in disguise.

“In Division Two we were able to learn our trade,” says Lappin, who works in corporate finance for Queen's University.

“It was a good standard but it wasn't such a harsh environment and, looking back, it was a good learning experience for us.”

So this is Lappin's 13th season for his club. He hasn't missed too many games since he first trotted out for his senior debut and he's a veteran at this stage but has a while to go before he catches up with the likes of James Lavery and Stephen Cusack who'll be closer to the 20-season mark by now.

“I don't feel old in the squad but sometimes you sit back and think: ‘I'm 32 now!' so I suppose I am at that veteran stage of my career,” he says.

“But we were starved of success for the first 10 years, so now that we're starting to do a bit better the motivation is there to keep going and there's no lack of motivation about Maghery now.

“It's great to see the young lads come into the team now thinking about doing well with the club – that's what they aspire to do.”

Those young players aim to build on the platform that has been built which took years of hard work to put together. After forcing their way back into the top flight, Maghery were Division One champions in 2012 and 2013 but there were a few early exits before they began to make an impact on the senior championship.

Even then, a black and amber colossus stood in their path: Crossmaglen Rangers.

Cross won every county championship from 1996 to 2015 (bar 2009) as well as 11 Ulster titles and six All-Ireland crowns, the last of those in 2012.

“We were coming up against Cross and at that time they were winning All-Irelands,” says Lappin.

“Each year we felt we were doing that wee bit better but no team in Ireland could beat them then so I don't think it was any shame to be losing to them.

“Having them in the Armagh championship raised our standards because we knew where we had to get to. There were other good teams around then like the Harps and Pearse Og (2009 champions) but Cross were that level above us all.”

With Cross so dominant for so long, their county rivals could do nothing more than suck it up, train harder and strive to reach a bar that had been set very high. The chasing pack finally made the breakthrough in 2016 when Cullyhanna took the most coveted scalp in Armagh football at the championship semi-final stage.

Having done that, they were expected to beat Maghery in the decider but the Loughshore men had 10 scorers in the final and Ciaran Higgins's goal saw them to 1-13 to 0-13 win and an historic championship breakthrough.

“I remember being in the club after we'd won the first league and saying to a few of the boys at the celebrations: ‘That's a microcosm of what it might be like to win a championship',” says Lappin.

“And it was – the celebrations were unreal.

“We had felt like it was coming. Shane McConville (manager) came in and he put that steel in us and a belief that we could take that final step. The likes of Ben Crealey and Ciaran Higgins came in to shore-up the spine of the team and they were a breath of fresh air. They were young to be playing in midfield (Crealey) and centre half-back (Higgins) but they had no fear. They just came in and went for it.”

The likes of Crealey and Higgins fitted seamlessly into a tight knit group, literally a band of brothers, alongside the Forkers, Fox's, Lappins and Laverys.

“We're a very small club,” says Oisin.

“I think we've only got something like 150 members and you could count on two hands the number of families that make up our team. There are a lot of brothers and cousins and there have been very few retirements over the last six or seven years, it's been the same group with a few new lads coming in.”

After their breakthrough success in 2016, manager McConville had to bring his players back to earth quickly and prepare them for a first-ever Ulster campaign. Their debut at provincial level saw them beat Cavan champions Ramor United, a win which earned them a semi-final against Down's Kilcoo.

On the day, the battle-hardened Magpies proved too good for the Armagh rookies.

“We were disappointed with how it ended,” says Lappin.

“They had been playing at that level for a few years and knew what they were doing but it was a great taste of playing at that level and it's something we'll always aspire to get back to.”

Maghery rubberstamped their status as champions in the 2017 championship by beating Crossmaglen at the semi-final stage the following season and went into the final determined to retain their crown against Armagh Harps. The defending champions went four points up in the early stages of the second half but the Harps hit back with two goals in a minute and, despite a gutsy fightback, the city side held on to win the title.

Emerging force Ballymacnab and then Crossmaglen edged them out in semi-finals in 2018 and 2019 but last year, with Finnian Moriarty now the manager, Maghery gathered themselves for another crack at the Gerry Fegan Cup.

“Finn has an amazing attention to detail,” says Lappin.

“The hours he puts in are amazing, he's a real student of the game and he just studies everything. “The level of professionalism has gone up and he works very well with Aidan and Stefan (Forker) who he would have known from playing for Armagh.

“When he came in he would have known our team inside out so there was no real breaking-in period. We won the league the first year he was in and we've enjoyed the set-up since.”

Armagh star Aidan Forker was man of the match in last season's final. Versatile Forker – whose father played in all four lost finals before that 2016 breakthrough - has been transformed into a man-marking defender at county level but he remains a lethal finisher for his club and led the way with 1-3 in the 4-9 to 0-17 win over Crossmaglen.

On Saturday, Maghery begin the defence of their hard won title hoping to break new ground by retaining it. Sometimes the crown can weigh heavily on the shoulders of the defending champions but Lappin says he doesn't feel any extra pressure.

“We played for 10 years and never won a championship,” he says.

“Maghery only have two championships in the club's history and the likes of Cross, Clann na nGael and the Harps have 80 between them (Cross 45, Harps 21, Clanns 14) so I don't think there'll ever be any complacency in Maghery.

“We understand that we're still a small club and there is a lot more to be won in future years. One of the things we talk about in Maghery is the legacy that we want to leave behind for future generations - a lot of the older players are very aware of that now and we want to go out on a high.

“The first one is always the hardest but once that belief is there… You always have to back yourself and we have that belief but I'm sure Harps will have that belief as well.”

They certainly will, particularly after their impressive form in the league. The Cathedral City side beat Maghery home and away this season and finished runners-up in Division One just behind Dromintee.

“We understand the task ahead of us and we're not looking past this game,” says Lappin.

“I know a lot of their players and they are as driven as we are. They're fast, they're fit and they have some good young players so it's definitely a big ask for us.

“But it's a Saturday under lights at the Athletic Grounds with the crowds back in… It's an occasion to be enjoyed.”

And it's do-or-die. The knockout format in Armagh means there is no second chance for the losers and Lappin – who was a Division Three winner with Armagh in 2018 - relishes that.

“Knockout is definitely my preference,” he said.

“That's what championship football is and when we had a group stage I always felt that the proper championship didn't start until we got to the quarter-finals. It has definitely added to the drama of it and we saw that in the Cross-Clan na Gael game (preliminary round which Cross won 0-19 to 2-11).

“One kick of the ball and it could be all over so you can expect the intensity of the game to match that from the first minute.

“There are a lot of good teams in Armagh and the championship is very open at the minute. I don't think anybody can look past Crossmaglen and the Harps with the pedigree they have so I don't think Maghery is the team to beat - if you're looking at history they are the clubs that have done it year-on-year. We're aiming to be one of those clubs but I don't think we're there yet.”

FOUR clubs have shared the last 25 championships in Armagh and no prizes for guessing which of those has won most. That's right, Crossmaglen.

The south Armagh outfit have brought the Gerry Fegan Cup back to Oliver Plunkett Park 20 times since 1996 but the chasing pack has made the Orchard county championship a much more competitive affair in recent seasons and that should continue in this year's knockout series with Cross, defending champions Maghery, Armagh Harps, Ballymacnab and Division One winners Dromintee among those with realistic championship ambitions.

Ballymacnab went very close in 2018 and 2019, particularly in the 2019 final when they looked to have Crossmaglen beaten only for the Rangers to mount an incredible late comeback. This year the Round Towers were relegated from Division One but a team that includes Rory and Jack Grugan and their Armagh team-mate Ryan Kennedy will be looking to bounce back in the championship starting tonight against Granemore.

St Peter's and Pearse Og are also in action tonight and three of the four winners over the last quarter-of-a-century are in action in tomorrow's triple bill.

First up it's Killeavy, semi-finalists last year when they pushed Cross to the pins of their collar, against Annaghmore and then Cross, who saw off a determined challenge from Clan na Gael in the preliminary round, meet Madden.

Defending champions Maghery take on Armagh Harps, the side that dethroned them in the 2017 decider, in the headline act. Harps beat the Sean McDermott's outfit home and away in the league and will hope that form continues into the championship.

On Sunday, Grange – without injured county star Ethan Rafferty – tangle with Clann Eireann, Mullabawn meet St Patrick's Cullyhanna and Dromintee, Division One winners this year, take on neighbours Silverbridge.

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