GAA Football

Kickham's Creggan end 67-year search for the Holy Grail

Conor McCann, Ethan Carey Small and Tommy McCann celebrate at the final whistle Picture: Mark Marlow
From Brendan Crossan at Corrigan Park

Northern Switchgear Antrim Senior Football Championship final: Kickham’s Creggan 1-12 St Mary’s Aghagallon 0-7

THEIR interminable 67-year search for another senior title is finally over. The class of ’54 certainly cast a long daunting shadow at Kickham's Creggan.

But under the fading light at Corrigan Park the clans of yesteryear – the Batesons, the Tottens and Coogans – were joined in the club’s hall of fame by the McCanns, McAteers, Johnstons, McLarnons and Smalls.

Flares scented the air as supporters raced onto the field to celebrate with their local heroes.

After toppling three-in-a-row champions Cargin in the semi-finals, the fighting pride of Creggan weren’t going to let a third final in four years pass them by.

None more defiant than the Kickham's, this was going to be their year.

They could have been playing anybody in yesterday’s decider – it just so happened to be rookie finalists St Mary’s Aghagallon – but Gerard McNulty’s men never once took their eyes off the prize.

The neon scoreboard in the corner of the Whiterock Road ground exuded a warm orange glow for the new champions.

The outcome of yesterday's final, it has to be said, was never in doubt.

Creggan didn’t have to dig as deep as they had to dig against Cargin a fortnight ago - but, tactically, they hit all the high notes again.

Prior to yesterday’s final, McNulty and his coaching team had a deep appreciation of just how important the opening 15 minutes would be against an opponent who’d never once set foot on this terrain.

In the opening exchanges, Creggan inflicted deep psychological damage to Aghagallon’s prospects of a first-ever senior title and were four points up to no score after 11 minutes.

It took 14 agonising minutes before Aghagallon opened their account, with county goalkeeper Luke Mulholland confidently converting a '45, but it didn't shift the momentum in their favour.

The Creggan players stuck to the trusted process and carried on regardless.

Aghagallon captain Gareth Magee sent over another placed ball in the 20th minute but that was their sum total for the opening half an hour.

Creggan fashioned a 0-7 to 0-2 half-time lead and pressed on the accelerator at the start of the second half to tighten their grip on proceedings, with midfielder Kevin Small grabbing his second of the day on 41 minutes after exchanging passes with Jamie McCann to ram home their dominance.

“The first 15 minutes were crucial,” explained McNulty.

“We didn’t get a good start against Cargin and we knew that. That was our gameplan – the first 15 minutes, we had to be relentless, tackling, keep the scoreboard ticking over and win turnovers. The first 15 minutes worked a treat, the next 15 minutes we probably should have had another three or four points on the board.

“We should have been sitting at 0-11 to 0-2 instead of 0-7 to 0-2. It wasn’t a comfortable score to be sitting at.”

Crucially, though, Creggan weren’t conceding either.

The fact that Aghagallon didn’t register a point from play until the 51st minute told its own story.

They relied too heavily on the individual flair of Adam Loughran and Eunan Walsh breaking Creggan’s shackles and producing moments of magic.

But the St Mary’s pair were never going to be allowed the space of previous outings against the best defence in Antrim – an observation, and an irrefutable one, made by Creggan manager McNulty afterwards.

As in other championship outings this season, Creggan corner-forward Matthew Rodgers made sure he wasn’t going to be hooked by stamping his authority on the game in the opening seconds.

The resourceful corner-forward opened Creggan’s account with a fine ‘mark’ after five minutes and turned sharply two minutes later to split Aghagallon’s posts before Ruairi McCann (free) and Kevin Small kept the scoreboard moving.

Creggan should have been further ahead but for a couple of efforts that landed short.

However, they didn’t have to rue those early opportunities because the underdogs coughed up possession too easily and really struggled to get out of their own half of the field.

Played in damp, slippery conditions, too many balls slipped from Aghagallon hands which visibly sapped their confidence while Creggan put a much higher price on possession, moving the ball through the hands, and were far more adept at working it into good scoring positions.

County hurling captain Conor McCann was a paragon of calm at centrefield in that crucial opening quarter. Unhurried, he moved the ball with the assuredness of a player who’d played in finals before.

The ubiquitous Jamie McCann made good decisions in possession and Kevin Small – contender for player of the year – continued where he’d left off against St John’s and Cargin.

At centre-back, Marty Johnston stuck to Loughran like glue, offering himself as an impenetrable shield in front of his full-back line while at the same time breaking forward to bag the first score of the second period.

At wing-back, Aidan Maguire played a canny game both defensively and offensively, veteran Odhran McLarnon was the team’s insurance policy, reading the game brilliantly at times as defensive sweeper and even though Aghagallon’s Pat Branagan was touch tight to Ruairi McCann, the Antrim free-taker still had significant influence in either half.

Aghagallon, who are only playing senior championship football in the last five years, needed to raise at least one green flag in the second half to haul themselves back in contention but couldn’t quite manage it.

Trailing by six points, Magee fired wide in the 56th minute and Aghgallon’s Ruairi McCann had a sight of goal in the 60th minute but was crowded out.

They were the only moments of real stress Creggan had to endure in a final they controlled from start to finish.

And with Aghagallon committing so many players forward in search of goals, substitute Sam Maguire stroked into an empty net in stoppage-time after Aidan Maguire had won a crucial turnover.

“Creggan adapted to the conditions better than us in the first half,” said Aghagallon boss Kevin Murray, who has raised standards in the four years he’s been at the club.

“Their retention of the ball was excellent and they took their scores. We settled the boys down for the second half and they clawed back into it a wee bit but it was a fair hill to climb.

“We went into this game with a bit of confidence. These boys have put a lot of effort in, not just this year but over the last few years, they’ve made a lot of sacrifices that’s needed to play senior football and hopefully they’ll keep at it and believe in themselves.”

You sense Aghagallon will be back next year.

As for Kickham's Creggan, they never went away after suffering final heartache in 2018 and 2020.

They've now reached the summit and the view will be exhilarating this morning. It's been a long time coming.

Ulster can wait. For a few days at least...

Kickham’s Creggan: O Kerr, EC Small, R Johnston, E McAteer; A Maguire, M Johnston (0-1), J McCann (0-2 frees); K Small (0-2), C McCann; T McAteer (0-1), P Coey, S Duffin; M Rodgers (0-3, 0-1 mark), R McCann (0-3 frees), O McLarnon Subs: C McCann (capt) for S Duffin (46), K Rice for M Rodgers (49), F Burke for O McLarnon (55), S Maguire (1-0) for T McAteer (61), T McCann for P Coey (64)

Blood substitution: C McCann (captain) for A Maguire (33-36)

Yellow cards: C McCann (30)

Black card: M Johnston (60)

St Mary’s, Aghagallon: L Mulholland (0-1 ’45); P Branagan, D Donnelly, A Mulholland; D McAlernon, R O’Neill, J Lamont; D McAlernan, J Lenehan; E Qalsh, A Loughran (0-1), M McAfee; G Magee (0-5 frees), R McCann, C McAlinden Subs: O Lenehan for C McAlinden (27), P Mulholland for A Mulholland (44), P Maginnis for M McAfee (49)

Yellow cards: D McAlernon (31), D McAlernon (37), R McCann (38), P Branagan (53)

Referee: C McDonald

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