GAA Football

The wheel at Kickham's Creggan will keep on turning regardless

Kickham's Creggan celebrate their semi-final victory over Cargin. They face St Mary's Aghagallon in tomorrow's county final Picture Mark Marlow

HARRY Bateson never seemed to miss a Creggan training session. Kevin Madden used to love seeing one of the club’s ’54 survivors sauntering in and leaning over the fence watching how the team was shaping up.

A quiet, unassuming man, Harry would occasionally chat and offer bits of advice to Madden, who raised standards during the four years he was managing the Kickham’s senior team [2016-2019].

For Madden, old Harry epitomised the south-west Antrim club.

“In my four years there I didn’t hear a cross word from a supporter or a committee member,” says the former Antrim footballer.

“They are just a very community-based club where everybody is there to support the team as best they can and to try and push the club in the right direction.”

Creggan were purring throughout the 2018 season, Madden’s third year in charge.

It looked and felt like their year. They’d clinched the Division One league title and stormed to their first senior championship final since 1977.

Packed with MacRory Cup winners, the large majority of whom had come through Creggan’s trusted underage crucible led by the indefatigable Gerard McLarnon, Bernie McNulty and Aidan Smith.

Standing on the championship cusp in 2018, it was fate they’d play neighbours and arch-rivals Cargin in the final in the hope of landing their first senior crown since 1954 when the Batesons, the Tottens and Coogans were Creggan’s high kings.

What unfolded in Ahoghill was a dour, desperate struggle where scores were as rare as hen’s teeth.

Creggan managed just four points, Cargin five, with the winning point coming from the boot of Mick McCann in the 52nd minute.

It depends on who you talk to about that awful final in Ahoghill and whether or not justice was served.

Creggan kicked 12 wides, many of them scoreable chances, while Cargin didn’t carve out as many opportunities but took more of theirs.

It was Cargin’s eighth senior title, their second in three seasons, and the first of an historic three-in-a-row under Bellaghy man Damian Cassidy.

Meanwhile, Creggan’s famine continued.

Since that ice-cold afternoon in Ahoghill, Cargin got stronger – but Creggan didn’t go away.

“The game itself took on a life of its own,” remembers Madden.

“I think there’s an unfair narrative out there that was probably thrown at both teams that neither of the teams went out to play football.

“I know from Creggan’s point of view anyway that that wasn’t the case. From my point of view and probably from Damian’s point of view, both teams set out to attack the game differently than the way it panned out.

“You look at the conditions that day: a swirling wind, a tight, tight pitch and you factor in what was at stake.

“For a long time after that day, it was majorly disappointing but Cargin had played in so many finals themselves and lost. It’s not often teams like Dungannon turn up out of nowhere and win a championship.

“It’s a journey and it’s about getting to the destination eventually and hopefully Creggan are on the path to doing that. Sometimes success comes out of adversity and I think those previous final defeats [2018 and 2020] will be more motivating than being debilitating.”

By the time the sides clashed in the 2020 decider in Portglenone, Madden had moved on and his assistant Gerard McNulty assumed the hot-seat.

In an enthralling final that needed extra-time to separate the sides, Cargin game-managed the big moments better and pipped their neighbours again.

The Kickham’s had emptied the tank, playing brilliant football from start to finish. But it still wasn’t enough to beat Cargin.

How man-of-the-match Ruairi McCann finished on the losing team remains one of those unjust quirks of championship football.

In a game of fine margins, McNulty was dismayed by a couple of refereeing decisions that went against his side.

As Cargin celebrated in the sun, Gerard McLarnon and his family made their way back to the car-park to find they were blocked in.

Armed with an oxygen bottle, Gerard took refuge in the boot of his Hatchback and waited for the cars to clear. He desperately wanted to see his club end their 66-year wait for a senior title – but he’d learned about perspective in 2020.

Earlier that year, he’d spent 57 days in ICU after contracting COVID19. He wasn’t supposed to make it. But he did.

He could live with the disappointment of a championship final defeat and being permanently handcuffed to a cumbersome oxygen bottle, for he’d won a bigger battle.

While he waited for his car to be liberated from the Casements car-park, he was overwhelmed by the kind words from so many Cargin people as they left the ground.

Kevin Madden is right: Creggan never went away.

Tomorrow, they’ll make another attempt to scale the last, most difficult part of the championship mountain against first-time finalists St Mary’s Aghagallon – a real firecracker of a team.

If they think they’ve already scaled the highest peak in overcoming defending champions Cargin in an epic semi-final two weeks ago, they’ll almost certainly slip on the final ascent.

********

REGARDLESS of what happens in tomorrow’s county final, the wheel keeps on turning at the Kickham’s. And it turns more fluidly with volunteers like the McLarnons, the McAteers and McCanns.

Conor McCann is one of the foundation stones the club’s current senior football and hurling teams is built upon.

He once held the PRO post and never misses an opportunity to promote his club. Both Conor and Eunan McAteer come from a design background and with the help of a drone they have marketed the club supremely well.

“We do what we can with the time that we have just to promote the facilities and showcase the club,” Conor says.

“The committee likes to develop all aspects of the GAA. We work with the local schools and local heritage group where Patrick McAteer does a lot of work with his daughter Caitríona.

“Caitríona would sing the national anthem at county games…There is a very strong tradition of Irish speaking in the McAteer family and they run Irish classes for the local community.

“Over the last 10 or 15 years there’s been a real push of promoting all aspects of the Creggan community and local area and I think that’s paying off because we have very strong participation across all codes at all age groups. There are not a lot of clubs in Antrim that are represented to that extent.”

Gerard, who spent the best part of 15 years coaching Creggan's underage teams, remembers Conor as a kid badgering him to play on teams his elder brother Thomas played on.

“I couldn’t settle until I was there with Thomas and playing. He’s three years older than me. I always wanted to play.”

Conor was well able to compete against older boys, but the youth coaches held him back.

“There is a saying,” muses Gerard. “Your worst player can be your best chairman. You do not let any of them slip through.

“That’s why I didn’t let Conor on the team because he was too young even though he was one of the best there, and because there were other guys that needed football and might slip away.

“It’s not all about ‘over the bar’ because you have to develop the child. I remember a mother saying to me: ‘I don’t know what you’re doing with my young fella at the club but he’s coming home happy.’

“And I said: ‘I’m doing nothing – I’m just letting him express himself.’ That’s all we wanted to do. In fact, I never wanted to coach senior level because there is no greater reward when you see some young fella understand. That’s reward for me.”

Throughout the years, the club put great emphasis on the value of seven-a-side Og Sport where most of the current squad learned their trade.

They won the county Og sport three years running in the mid-to-late ‘Noughties’ and ran Ballinderry desperately close in an Ulster decider.

Conor McCann, Martin and Ricky Johnston, Damian McLarnon (now with Washington Gaels), Odhran McLarnon, Aidan Maguire were all involved during that rich vein of success before Ruairi McCann, Conor and Kevin Small came along.

They later competed in the St Paul’s minor tournament and were exposed to the Scotstowns and Kilcoos of this world.

“All those clubs have gone on and won their championship, and we haven’t yet,” Gerard says.

“So we haven’t reached our full potential yet, but I would say it’s Cargin that has held us back. We just needed to get that monkey off our back. And now we’ve done that I think that’s going to be massive for the team and its progression.

“Now, we have to be totally respectful of Aghagallon and I think the boys will be. We’ve climbed a mountain but there’s another one to climb now.”

********

CARGIN continued where they left off against St Gall’s, producing an awesome first 20 minutes against Creggan in their semi-final a fortnight ago.

Pat Shivers got the champions off to a flyer with his side’s first of two goals, while their second major in the 20th minute was a work of art.

Tomas McCann pulled Ricky Johnston out to the wing, the ball was fired in to temporary target man Mark Kelly. McCann won the foot race with Johnston, accepted Kelly’s off-load and hammered into Creggan’s net.

Cargin led their rivals 2-2 to 0-3.

“All of the years and years leaning over the fence and watching Cargin play, their decision-making is always good,” says Gerard.

“And while they are local rivals and all of that, you respect them for what they have achieved. In the first 10 or 15 minutes in our semi-final, I thought to myself: ‘Here we go again.’

“But somehow we didn’t lose the run of ourselves.”

Goals in big championship games are usually decisive. It’s like taking a hammer to your opponents’ morale.

But Creggan didn’t flinch when Shivers and McCann rippled their net. They stuck to the process and chipped away at the champions’ resolve.

By half-time, they’d registered seven scores – the same as Cargin, but trailed by four.

What unfolded in the second half was a breath-taking display of tactical and physical effort.

Every time a Cargin player made a break out of defence, they were immediately surrounded by Creggan players with hands in or big hits.

This was the human manifestation of pure hunger on championship days.

Cargin simply couldn’t live with the kind of intensity Gerard McNulty’s players had generated.

And when the openings came Creggan grabbed them with both hands.

Jamie McCann’s flawless left foot. Ruairi McCann’s dead-eyed calm in a championship maelstrom.

Awesome foot soldiers in every line, mentally and physically stretching themselves and reaching sporting excellence.

At midfield, Conor McCann and Kevin Small provided an uncompromising shield, transforming their own half of the field into a demilitarized zone. This was an awesome high press.

You’ll not see a better second-half performance anywhere for the rest of 2021.

Even before Ruairi McCann sent over his fifth of the day in stoppage-time to put three between the sides, Cargin were already a beaten team.

“I was emotional after the semi-final because I just felt the decision-making was great from the players,” says Gerard.

“I went home and was as content about that as I was about the result.”

*****

THE fact that Creggan had managed to overcome their arch-rivals in the semi-finals might actually be a good thing, says Madden.

“They weren’t coming up against that pressure of having lost two finals to Cargin in a final,” says the former manager, now with Swatragh in Derry.

“This was a different stage of the competition which was a positive from their point of view.

“But, look, the big question Creggan need to answer now is: was their goal to beat Cargin in the championship or was it to beat Cargin on the way to winning the championship?

“That’s where they have to question their ‘why’. Whilst beating Cargin would have been very emotive on the day and meant a lot more than maybe beating any other team it’s still not a substitute for winning a championship.

“I know the players will feel the same. They have to go on now and seal the deal.”

That fondness for the Kickham’s will probably never leave Madden. Still carrying the scars of 2018, he has so much admiration for the work ethic of the squad he worked with for four fruitful years.

“If I was to mention one player I would probably say Odhran McLarnon would be the model ‘professional’, he was a dream to work with,” Madden says.

“He wasn’t the most stand-out player in Creggan but for setting standards and following instructions and being a good role model Odhran has few peers.

“I know you usually get what you deserve in sport – but if there’s a wee bit of luck going, people like Odhran McLarnon deserve it because he soldiers on. I’m sure he’s playing senior football for 14 or 15 years.

“His attention to detail around his preparation is second to none. If he’d been dropped for a game or been taken off, Odhran was always one to look in the mirror and ask ‘How can I give more?’ ‘What did I not do there?’ ‘How can I set the standard for everybody else?’

“He would never point the finger or look for excuses – and there are others too. God, I could name a lot more. You have the Maguires, the various sets of McCanns, the Smalls, Oisin Kerr, Mark Dougan… There are just so many sound lads and far too many to mention.”

Madden adds: “You hear the word ‘culture’ used a lot in sport and the importance of the right behaviour you need to be successful. Creggan are the epitome of a club that has a really sound culture based on respect and good values. They just have a lot of good people there.”

When the ball is thrown in at Corrigan Park at half-two tomorrow afternoon, Creggan will want to right the wrongs of 2018 and 2020 and end the interminable wait for a senior championship.

It might seem ridiculous to say it, but tomorrow is not the be-all and end-all. What a scoreboard reads at the end of a game has never defined Kickham’s Creggan.

“No matter what happens,” says Conor McCann, “we’ll still be working as hard as we can to get as many youngsters out and enjoy playing. That’s the key thing for us especially with COVID and getting everyone enjoying it. We seriously want to win but at the back of it all it’s about enjoyment and exercising – winning is the icing on the cake.”

The Creggan wheel will still be turning on Monday morning because that’s what all the best human co-operatives do…

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

GAA Football