GAA Football

First-timers St Mary's Aghagallon bid for senior glory

Eunan Walsh has epitomised the never-say-die spirit of St Mary's Aghagallon as they prepare for their first senior final against Kickhams Creggan on Sunday

THE day after St Mary’s Aghagallon beat Portglenone in what seemed like a never-ending semi-final at Dunsilly, Eunan Walsh’s limbs ached.

The 24-year-old attacker, who'd bagged a game-defining 1-5 in an epic contest, knew that the aches were temporary – but the stress of not knowing whether they would actually get the chance to play in their first-ever senior county final was more debilitating.

It’s now become known in Aghagallon as the 'Longest Monday'.

It’s been well documented now, but defeated semi-finalists Portglenone queried the rationale behind playing two periods of extra-time when regulations stated that the last four tie should proceed to penalty kicks after one period.

For the Roger Casements club, there was hell to pay on social media – that great bastion of measured comment – and that they should accept the outcome of the game and not make a fuss.

Everyone scampered to the moral high ground.

Aghagallon released their statement on social media, decrying the injustice of a possible replay before Portglenone clarified their position at around 10 o’clock that night.

They had never lodged an appeal. They merely queried the match regulations. Technically, they were on solid ground. But they never pursued it in the interests of “sportsmanship and integrity”.

Antrim GAA, disaster averted. Aghagallon would get their shot at Kickham's Creggan on November 14 at Corrigan Park.

For those 12 hours or more, Walsh admits the whole episode completely drained him.

“We just played the game and did whatever we were told,” he says.

“It was a case of: ‘If it’s another five, we’ll go again. Anything to get over the line…’

Ruairi McCann’s late point in the dying embers of a memorable clash finally settled the issue – but Aghagallon should never have let it get that far having spurned numerous chances to put away their rivals in normal time.

When news broke that there was sufficient doubt surrounding Aghagallon taking their place in the final, the team’s WhatsApp group went into overdrive.

“When we heard about it on Monday morning we talked about 'controlling the controllables' and we just hoped everything would be done the way we wanted it.

“Maybe I’m a wee bit more involved in the club because my dad [Columb] is chairman so I was being drip-fed information.

“To be honest, I was stressed all day – going from such a high to thinking of every outcome. It was stressful. We were happy it was sorted out on the field and thankful it was done in such a quick period of time and wasn’t dragged out for a couple of days.”

***********

A BIT like being born, Eunan Walsh has no recollection of his first training session with his local GAA club. He was just always there.

He does recall his grandmother giving him a football to play with in the garden.

“That’s my first memory starting out.”

Born and bred towards Gawley’s Gate, “closer to the lough direction”, the Walsh and McStravick clans were always heavily involved at St Mary’s.

His grandfather John McStravick Snr was one of its founding members and Seamus Walsh, his other grandfather, was long woven into the fabric of the club.

Although there was always a strong GAA presence around its rolling hills, the Mitchels, the Shamrocks and the Dalcassians merged in 1982 and St Mary’s Aghagallon GAC was officially born.

“We’re just a really small parish,” Walsh says.

“There are two small primary schools and one local shop. That’s it. The football club is the heart of the community. We’re sitting around 400 or 500 members, the majority of those being underage. We’re a small, tight community, not far from Lurgan - and people would know all about the football that’s going on there.

“At underage we wouldn’t have been the worst, but we wouldn’t have been the best either. I actually remember at U12 and U14 we would have played a St Enda’s team and in those games we wouldn’t have scored at U12.

“At that time, they were a very good side. The whole way up we just kept improving and improving. I think it was in 2014 we won a minor 'B', we beat Glenavy in Ahoghill – and that was the start of it. A lot of our senior team now were around that age.”

In 2015, the senior footballers were relegated into Division Three – a “huge low for the club” – but the following year there were green shoots of recovery at St Mary’s.

“In 2016 we were back in Division Two, we were only beaten twice and we won the intermediate championship and the U21 ‘A’ championship, our first ‘A’ grade title. Doing that double was huge,” Walsh adds.

St Ronan’s College, Lurgan opened its doors in September 2015, an amalgamation of St Paul’s, St Michael’s and St Mary’s Girls.

In a town that has become a hotbed of Gaelic Games, the Aghagallon club had a heavy presence on the St Ronan’s team that tasted MacRory and Hogan Cup glory in 2018.

Aghagallon and county goalkeeper Luke Mullholland – described as an “oasis of calm” by St Ronan’s joint manager Mickey Donnelly - was only a fifth year when he won MacRory and Hogan and is still only 20.

Jamie Lamont played centre-back on the all-conquering college team and has had a storming championship season at wing half-back for Aghagallon. Jack Lenehan played midfield, Mark McAfee also had a dynamic impact in 2018 while most of the team’s attacks flowed through Adam Loughran at centre-forward.

“The first time I saw Adam was in a P6 tournament,” says Donnelly. “He was playing for Derrymore Primary School and was just brilliant.

“He had a huge desire. He’d fall out with referees, he’d fall out with his team-mates, but he wanted to win more than anybody else. And he was driving people on as a result of that.”

Clann Eireann, who feature in this weekend’s Armagh SFC final against Crossmaglen, were also well represented on the St Ronan’s class of 2018.

“That squad had massive belief and I think part of that was borne out of success at underage level with their clubs,” says Donnelly.

“Aghagallon and Clann Eireann are playing on the same day at the same time at different venues but their paths are very similar.

“Aghagallon have had a lot of good underage teams similar to Clann Eireann and we’ve reaped the benefit of that.”

So many came through the St Ronan’s cradle, Pat Branagan among them.

Like Branagan, Walsh, who was St Ronan’s first Head Boy, had already passed through the college before they won the MacRory and Hogan Cups.

Walsh adds: “The amount of talent that came out of St Ronan’s was massive for us.

“A lot of the team are so young but what they got out of those wins was a serious amount of confidence and they came into a senior team at a time when we were transitioning but they brought confidence into the team, they lifted standards and continue to lift standards. It’s how we think and how we go about ourselves.

“Five years ago, if you’d told me we’ll be playing in a senior final I would’ve said that’s not going to happen, especially with the talent in the county – the likes of Cargin and St Gall’s – clubs with a huge amount of history in senior football.

“But in those first couple of years we learned a serious amount and we’ve been building on that ever since.”

It was probably in the midst of the pandemic last year Aghagallon really forced people to sit up and take notice of them.

Kevin Murray (left) has made incremental improvements in his four years with Aghagallon Picture: Seamus Loughran

For most of their enthralling quarter-final encounter with 2017 county champions Lamh Dhearg at Corrigan Park, Aghagallon were the better side.

The Hannahstown men were struggling to get to grips with the tenacity and the sheer audacity of these young bucks from the country – and they looked like losing it until the Lamh Dhearg management team threw on the towering Decky Dunne in the closing stages.

Now starring in goal for Irish League club Cliftonville, substitute Dunne caught Paddy Cunningham’s ‘up and under’ before off-loading to Brendan Heron who hit the back of the net with a brilliant drive.

Lamh Dhearg breathed again and although they headed for the championship exit Aghagallon would be back. And they're back with a vengeance to reach tomorrow’s showpiece decider.

Despite suffering a pair of group losses to Lamh Dhearg in this year’s championship, St Mary’s began to find their rhythm as the season progressed.

They rode out the storm up at St Enda’s and finished strongly to win and at home against the same opposition they recovered from two quick-fire second-half goals against the Hightown Road men to take the spoils in their win-or-bust clash.

They had too much for a decidedly weakened St Brigid’s and pulled out all the stops in their controversial semi-final win over Portglenone 11 days ago.

Walsh, a Trench Cup winner with Dundalk IT and a Gaelic Games coaching officer in Louth, has been penetrating every defence he’s faced this year.

Breaching Creggan’s rear-guard will be his toughest ask tomorrow in what has been a quite brilliant campaign for the 24-year-old county ace.

“We spoke about this when we went back to training on the Tuesday night after the semi-final, these moments maybe won’t come around too often,” Walsh says.

“We’re in a really lucky place. We are the first people in our club to be in a senior championship final. A lot of the older generation might not have played out of junior championship or Division Four back in the day.

“My dad found a league table from 1982 or ’83 and Aghagallon were sitting second bottom in Division Four. Forty years later, we’re here. We just have to go out and enjoy it and, yes, there are periods where you just want to be at your own thing and focus on the game.

“But I don’t think we can let this week go by without actually enjoying the moment and everything that’s going on around the parish.

“We know the talent Creggan have. We’re rookie finalists but we’re going in with confidence that we can win this game. It won’t be easy. Whatever happens on the day it is a bit of history for our club, for this group of players - and we always believe there is more in us.”

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

GAA Football