Gerry is back in Lake Street, now what's next for Armagh champions Clann Eireann?
SHEA Heffron was a teenager when he first noticed a slogan carved into one of the benches in the Clann Eireann gym. It read: ‘Gerry's coming home'.
‘Gerry' is of course the Gerry Fagan Cup, the most sought after piece of silverware in Armagh and years after he first noticed the reference, 26-year-old Heffron fulfilled what was “always an aspiration” when he brought Gerry home to Lake Street after captaining Clann Eireann to a thrilling victory over pre-final favourites Crossmaglen.
The Lurgan club's third senior championship title had been a long time coming. 58 years had passed since Cavan-born Fagan, who went on to become a revered county secretary, skippered Clann Eireann to success in 1963. He'd also been captain for the 1954 success but never got the chance to play in the Ulster Club Championship because it didn't come into being until 1968.
So Heffron and his team-mates break new ground when they take the field resent Armagh against Antrim champions Kickham's Creggan (also in their first campaign) at Corrigan Park on Sunday.
The Clann Eireann players and management and their army of supporters celebrated their title with the appropriate gusto but now that the dust has settled, the focus is on the next chapter of a memorable season that also included promotion to the Orchard county's top flight.
“Creggan are really tough opposition, I've watched them a few times this year and the Ulster Club is a beast of its own,” said Heffron, choosing his words carefully.
“Every side is there on merit and you have to respect them all for the success they've had to date. I wouldn't say any draw is easy and it's all new territory for us but we'll approach it like any other game.”
Since graduating in Actuarial Science (which a Google search explains is ‘the discipline that applies mathematical and statistical methods to assess risk in insurance, finance, and other industries and professions') from Queen's University, Heffron has undertaken a daunting series of professional exams.
He sat the last one, the 15th, in September and is awaiting the results but he is someone who likes to spend his time wisely and productively. During lockdown he trained and qualified as a masseuse so, when you add in the football, it's fair to say he's a busy man.
“The long road of exams is coming to an end and I'm sure it'll all be worth it down the line – that's what I'm told anyway,” he says.
“I often ask myself if I was sane doing the massage but it keeps you busy and I love being busy and learning new things. I was always interested in recovery and how the body recovers from training and there was a lot of theory with the massage course so I enjoyed that.”
He enjoyed every mile of Clann Eireann journey in Armagh too. Clann Eireann won their title the hard way and not only did they account for Crossmaglen, Tommy Coleman's side dethroned last year's champions Maghery at the quarter-final stage. Coleman has assembled a formidable unit that includes the defensive solidity of Heffron and Barry McCambridge in defence, the tenacity of Tiernan Kelly and Conor McConville around midfield and the cutting edge of Conor Turbitt up front.
But what made 2021 the club's year? Obviously key players hitting form together played a huge part but Heffron – who made his senior debut 10 years ago as a 16-year-old - says it's the unity in the squad that enabled Clann Eireann to end their 58-year wait on Gerry coming home.
“There was a real trust within the squad between Tommy and the management and us as players,” he says.
“With every game we played that trust got even stronger and we knew that every time we went onto the field whoever was starting or was coming on as a sub would do their absolute best. That unity is what got us over the line, we're very tight as a unit – we're team-mates and friends as well and we socialise together.
“It's a special environment when you can come to training and you always know that you're going to be training hard with lads who want the absolute best for you and for themselves and are willing to do whatever it takes - everybody wants to win and they'll do anything to win.
“So it's a really good environment to be a part of and I can't speak highly enough of my team-mates.”
Alongside the players mentioned above there are emerging youngsters and tried and tested veterans like Ryan Henderson who is an inspirational presence at sweeper. Henderson – who has played up front for Armagh and Linfield – is “a sage in the squad” according to Heffron.
“Any time you need to know something you can tap into Ryan's head because he's full of footballing wisdom,” he adds.
“We have three senior men in Ryan, Conor Bell and Decky Leathem and they have really complemented the youth in the squad. They bring that experience of a lot of years of hard graft.”
And at the other end of the age scale, talented youngsters are battling for game-time. Goals from substitutes Ruairi McDonald and Jack Conlon turned the county final on its head and there are others in the 42-man squad pushing hard to make their mark.
Their emergence is the result of decades of hard work in the club, Heffron explains: “Twenty years ago a group of coaches got together with the aim of working with the youth in the club and that is really bearing fruit now that we can finally say we're county champions.
“We are very fortunate that we could take the field and win the cup but we've had so many people backing us from we were young boys. The club is built on so many people giving their time and expecting nothing so it was a payment to them and hopefully the club will continue to benefit from their work over the years ahead.”
And leading the team is a home-grown management unit headed by Coleman, a former Clann Eireann player, with a backroom team of Mark McCann, Jamesie Byrne, Kevin O'Loan and Dan Barton.
“To have the success we've had this year with Clann Eireann men makes it all the more special,” said Heffron.
“They've put so much effort into us over the past two years and they have left absolutely no stone unturned so they deserve immense credit for all this. They're part of the club make-up and they would have seen all of us come through the underage ranks. They would have seen potential in us and getting us over the line and taking us to the title was the cherry on top of the cake.
“It was a fantastic celebration and it was only after the game that we understood the impact that winning the championship made on so many of the Clann Eireann community.
“It was fantastic for the whole community and to see Lake Street with all the people lining the streets… It was brilliant for the whole community.”
On the way home from the Athletic Grounds on November 14, Heffron's dad Seamus told his wife: “This is the best day of my life!” After a few pointers from Mrs Heffron (their wedding day, the birth of their son etc…) he rephrased: “It's the best day of my sporting life”.
Mind you, that's still high praise. Seamus Heffron is ‘a Glen man' from Maghera who lined out for the Watty Graham's club and Derry as well and he also had a stint as a left-winger with French semi-professional soccer outfit AC Cambrais.
A French teacher by profession at St Michael's/St Ronan's, Seamus was joint-manager, with Brother Ennis, of the Armagh minor side that got the All-Ireland final in 1992.
“It was a special moment to be able to throw my arms around him,” says Shea.
“It was quite emotional because as much as we train and play and reap the benefits from that, we aren't able to do it without the support of our families and friends and in particular our parents who are there to feed us and wash our kit and put up with us when we get beat.
“We have experienced a lot of losses and you obviously take them to heart but that's how success is created – from learning from your defeats.”
A meeting with Derry's Glen in the Ulster final would be a memorable day out for the family…
“It's one step at a time,” says Heffron.
“We'll focus on Creggan and wish Maghera all the best on their journey.”