Cargin and St Gall's - a rivalry that was built to last
With St Gall's and Cargin set for another championship dalliance this weekend, Brendan Crossan delves into this lauded rivalry that lit up the Antrim Senior Football Championship over the last 20 years...
WITH the St Gall’s players forming a human shield along the goal-line and Tomas McCann 13 metres out with the ball in his hands, photographer John ‘Curly’ McIlwaine crept onto the Creggan pitch and crouched into position.
“I was on the furthest away ’45,” ‘Curly’ recalls.
“When Tomas was taking the free I was able to step out onto the pitch and get an angle. I never considered racing round behind the goal because I wouldn’t have had time. I think it works better that way anyway because you can see what is happening.”
Trailing by two points with virtually no time left on the clock in a desperately tense but exhilarating 2018 Antrim SFC quarter-final between two old rivals, McCann lashed the ball into the roof of the net to win it for Cargin.
Seconds earlier, Jamie Gribbin was rounding St Gall’s ‘keeper Chris Kerr and about to put the ball in the net, but the referee had blown his whistle for an infringement out the field.
“Our boys were going f***ing nuts when it was called back,” says McCann.
“To be honest, I wasn’t because I was thinking about what I was going to do with the free. I’d no choice but to go for goal. It was the last kick of the game. I was trying to catch the ball slightly higher than you normally would to get more power and trying to keep it at the same flight.
“The football that was played between the two teams that day was mad. We were two points down and won it with the last kick.”
The moment the ball hit the back of the net was perfectly captured on camera by ‘Curly’ McIlwaine.
What he produced was another masterpiece, another memorable archive – “probably the best game of football I’ve watched in Antrim,” ‘Curly’ says.
“You know you’ve something decent on your camera; but I was more worried with the sequence and getting that right," he adds. "I think those cameras would have done 12 or 14 frames per second.
“But the goal itself was incredible. I remember thinking it was probably a game St Gall’s shouldn’t have lost as they were ahead a few times.”
At that time, St Gall’s were still getting a tune out of their trusted playmaker Kieran McGourty.
“A lot of St Gall’s people say that we should never have lost that quarter-final but I’d disagree,” McGourty says now, “because they had more scores and we’d got the goals [2-17 to 4-10].
“We were five or six up twice in the game. They came back us, they got a late goal and then Tomas got that last-minute one. It was sickening but Cargin maybe deserved it.”
Winner of 13 county championships with the Milltown men, McGourty reflects: “That was the realisation that the power had definitely shifted to Cargin and they went on to back that up.
“We’d been about too long then and they were just a fitter, younger team. Even if you look at their young players – Jamie Gribbin and Ciaran Bradley – they’ve really improved as a team, whereas we didn’t have that influx of young players at that stage.”
Although both sets of players didn’t know it at the time but that classic encounter, settled by Tomas McCann’s right foot, was the last of a great rivalry that endured for the guts of 20 years.
St Gall’s would slip back into the chasing pack with a serious rebuild ahead of them, while the 2018 championship turned out to be the first of three consecutive titles for Damian Cassidy’s Erin’s Own side.
They met in the championship the following year at Corrigan Park, but the west Belfast men were a faded force as Cargin steamrollered them.
Mention the pretenders to Cargin’s crown ahead of this weekend’s four quarter-finals and St Gall’s will probably not feature too heavily in the conversation as they face the champions at St Enda’s Glengormley on Saturday afternoon.
In many observers' eyes, Kickham’s Creggan, Aghagallon, Lamh Dhearg and maybe even St John’s would probably be rated as sterner tests to challenge Cassidy’s men. St Gall's will beg to differ.
So, is Saturday’s clash a renewal of an enduring rivalry or is it simply a run-of-the-mill quarter-final which Cargin will win?
Of course, a rivalry can only be renewed and authenticated if St Gall’s push the champions right to the wire, or beat them.
Clearly, though, the roles have been reversed in recent times.
St Gall’s dominated for so long that often left Cargin players wondering would the Belfast men's dominance ever end.
Even before their purple patch of county championship success, which began at the beginning of the ‘Noughties’ under Mickey Culbert, Cargin always struggled with St Gall’s.
“Cargin were in the final nearly every year and lost a load of them,” says former St Gall’s keeper and current manager Paddy Murray.
“I remember we beat them in ’87, ’90 and ’93. St Gall’s had some smashing players: Lenny Harbinson, Peter Stewart, John Kennedy, Mickey Gribben, Mickey Corr and Gerry Moore – legends that you’ll find on the walls of our club.
“We’d a few barren years after that and ended up in Division Two before coming back up. Cargin and St Paul’s were the two main teams in that period of the mid-90s and we came along and took over when Mickey Culbert was manager.
“Throughout those years I was quite close to some of the Cargin boys in the county, the likes of Kevin Doyle, who is involved with Cargin now and during that time they talked about almost a fear of playing at Casement, and that we were a team they found difficult to get over the line against.”
The 2004 championship campaign illustrates Murray’s point. Cargin defeated St Gall’s up the country before recovering through the newly created back-door system and beating their rivals in the final that same year.
“Cargin of ’04 were a super team,” Murray says. “That was Mick McCann’s first year, Kevin Doyle was a flyer, they had big Eddie Quinn, a super player, Ciaran O’Neill and they’d a couple of tidy forwards as well.”
Between 2001 and 2014, St Gall’s claimed an incredible 13 titles out of 14, with Cargin nipping them in 2006, just a few months after the Falls Road men had suffered a heart-wrenching All-Ireland final loss to Salthill/Knocknacarra at Croke Park.
However, the natural order in the county was restored the following year.
“That rivalry was a strange one,” Cargin midfielder Mick McCann said in an interview last year, “because St Gall’s were so good between 2005 and 2010.
“And yet, on paper, we genuinely believed we had good if not better footballers, that’s the God’s honest truth. Between 2005 to 2013-ish, we had six or seven players on the county panel every year and at least five of them started.
“Cargin was the most represented club on the county team. But St Gall’s were just so well drilled, a really formidable, awesome team. It reached a point where they were a level ahead of us.
“I’d respect for all their players. Somebody could say to me now: ‘Maybe that was Cargin’s problem - you had too much respect for them.’ But I don’t think that was the case.”
Even though St Gall's dominated for so long, the roll of honour list can often mask just how tight some of those championships were.
Tomas McCann remembers rooming with Kevin Niblock while on Antrim duty and almost as a throwaway line, Niblock said to McCann: ‘You’re closer than what you think’.
“I also remember Colin Brady [St Gall’s defender] saying that they felt they had to get over us to set them up for the championship because if they beat us, they could go on and win it," Tomas says.
“I enjoyed the matches because St Gall’s were one of the best teams about.”
Every Cargin and St Gall’s player of the ‘Noughties’ and indeed the earlier part of the last decade will have their own memories of championship days.
For some, maybe all the games morph into one and the years perhaps become blurred with the passage of time.
But Mick McCann always remembers a 2008 championship encounter with St Gall’s when a Justy Crozier goal was ruled out.
“If you wanted to get into heavy hitting and mucking about Cargin were well fit for it,” says Mick McCann.
“One thing I liked about St Gall’s was they hit hard, but they played their football.
“A couple of times we nearly had them. They beat us by a point in 2008. I remember we were four points up, Justin Crozier went through on goal and scored...
“The referee blew the whistle and called it back and did him for over-carrying but he couldn’t see that Justy had bounced the ball. You were thinking: ‘We’re never going to beat these f***ing boys’.”
Tactically speaking, it was always a game of chess between the two teams, as they knew each other like the backs of their hands.
St Gall’s knew they had to mind the McCanns, Tony Scullion and Kevin O’Boyle’s attacking raids and Ciaran Close’s poaching ability in the final third.
Likewise, Cargin had plenty of tactical holes to plug.
“You would have had Sean Kelly at the back orchestrating things,” says Tomas McCann.
“If the ball needed slowed down, he could do that, if it needed speeded up, he could do that too.
“It was hard to get him stopped. Then they had ‘Aidso’ [Aodhan Gallagher] in midfield who was well linked in to their set-up and in the forward line you had Niblock and CJ McGourty and Kieran McGourty who seemed to win every ball that went near him.
“Kieran McGourty probably didn’t get the recognition he deserved. Everybody talked about CJ and Kevin but sometimes people forget how many times Kieran was under the breaking ball. And they had Karl Stewart playing corner-forward tackling like a corner-back.”
McGourty says: “We always believed if we got our match-ups right we’d have enough quality elsewhere. I remember playing against them and Kevin O’Boyle picked me up. I remember Kevin Niblock saying: ‘Away and stand in the corner’.
“I was happy enough to sacrifice my game because I didn’t fancy chasing Kevin O’Boyle back, but we had four or five quality players that made the difference in those games.
“Everyone knew Cargin’s main players. They mightn’t have had the medals at the start of their careers but they’ve got them now.”
St Gall’s last championship came in 2014, beating Cargin in Ahoghill. In his victory speech, captain Sean Kelly spoke glowingly and respectfully of how they wouldn’t have won the titles they’d won without their rivalry.
Now, St Gall’s are trying to reach the gold standards set by three-in-row champions Cargin on Saturday.
McGourty says: “Cargin are out in front because they’ve won the last two minor championships. I watched them in a league game against Lamh Dhearg when the county players were missing, but the players they were bringing in, they just seemed to play the system.
“There was no young minor coming in trying to show off. I was really impressed with the attitude of their young players. That’s maybe something Cargin didn’t have before, they were maybe too individualistic.
“Now, this nearly comes across as a dig at them but I think it’s fair comment – they haven’t really produced in Ulster. That’s the thing that we had over Cargin - we did manage to kick on.”