We will embrace the chance of playing in Ulster for the first time: Creggan boss Gerard McNulty
KICKHAM’S Creggan boss Gerard McNulty has urged his players to seize the opportunity of performing on Ulster’s biggest club stage for the first time in their careers.
The newly crowned Antrim champions will face Clann Eireann of Armagh at Corrigan Park on Sunday with both clubs making their senior debuts on the provincial stage.
The Kickham’s ended a 67-year wait for a county title, Clann Eireann 58 years.
With their respective county championship celebrations put to bed, both the Antrim and Armagh champions will fancy their chances of progressing to the last four.
“I’d say the Clann Eireann management team and players are thinking the same as us: what an opportunity,” said McNulty, now in his third season as Creggan manager.
“It’s the first venture into Ulster football, we’ll get to experience Corrigan again with a full house. It was a great atmosphere in the county final. The buzz around the area after the final was fantastic and that’s still the case. The flags are still up, the bunting is still up and they have all these dummies along the road and they’re all still out.
“This time last year they were all taken down a day or two after the county final defeat [to Cargin].”
Creggan’s rise to the summit in Antrim has been coming for several years. They reached the 2018 and 2020 county finals but fell short to Cargin on both occasions.
But with a significant slice of county experience and a natural maturing of the Kickham’s panel, they avenged those two final defeats by edging out Cargin in a memorable semi-final before comfortably beating first-time county finalists St Mary’s Aghagallon in the decider on November 14.
Goalkeeper Oisin Kerr, brothers Ricky and Marty Johnston, Ruairi McCann, Kevin Small and Antrim hurling captain Conor McCann bring county experience to the Creggan set-up, with seven of the side claiming club Allstar gongs at an inaugural awards event at the Devenish Complex last weekend.
“You look at the county players and they are challenging themselves already,” McNulty said.
“After each training session we talk and we get the players to have a conversation, it’s an open circle. They don’t want this opportunity to slip. For them, it’s a case of, ‘we are now in Ulster, so let’s push on.’
“I know the guys will go out and try their best. We know this is a different level but they’re all really looking forward to it and so are the management team.”
McNulty was drafted into the Creggan set-up under former boss Kevin Madden and after the latter stepped down in 2019, McNulty moved into the manager’s role.
The north Belfast man and his brother Thomas, who assists him at Creggan, did brilliant work over the last decade with the underage players of St Enda’s, Glengormley before spreading their coaching wings.
Regarded as two meticulous researchers of the opposition, Gerard joked that he managed to snaffle some footage of Sunday’s opponents before Armagh TV had taken them down.
“We’ve analysed them and I’ve watched their final [against Crossmaglen Rangers] a couple of times,” the Creggan boss said.
“You can see some good stuff in them, they are a quality team and even by reading in the piece in The Irish News [an interview with Shea Heffron] they’re looking forward to it just as much as Creggan are. If both teams perform on the day, it’ll be some game.”
After some gut-wrenching near-misses in the county championship, Creggan may feel a weight lifted off their shoulders as they ponder the trials of Ulster.
“Winning the county title was very emotional,” McNulty acknowledged.
“I knew they could do it. It would have been a crying shame if this bunch of players kept falling at the last hurdle. For Ulster, we haven’t taken our eye off the ball here.
“Our first training night back after the county final, we went at 60 per cent because of the celebrations. We then went up to 80 per cent and by the following session we were back up to 100 per cent and we’ve had a couple of good nights under us now.
“I’m not going to start playing mind games at this stage. We’re going along nicely, we’re working hard, we’re not fooling anybody. We’re not going to rely on anything other than ourselves.”