GAA Football

Knocking on the door: Belfast school has long-term plan after maiden MacRory campaign

Towering St Patrick's, Armagh midfielder Jake Toal comes in for close attention from Knock's Conor Donaldson. Picture by Mal McCann
From Neil Loughran at The Dub

Danske Bank MacRory Cup Section A: Our Lady & St Patrick’s, Knock 0-6 St Patrick’s College, Armagh 2-11

THEIR maiden MacRory Cup campaign has proved a steep learning curve for Our Lady and St Patrick’s College, Knock – but the Belfast school is hoping this is only the beginning of the journey.

A biting wind and occasional rain showers pinging down on pitch 13 at The Dub complex yesterday afternoon represented Knock’s first ‘home’ game in the rarified air of MacRory Cup football, with competition stalwarts St Patrick’s College, Armagh providing the opposition.

Having accounted themselves well in defeat to Abbey CBS on their opening outing last Friday, this was not so much a chastening experience as further indication, as if it were needed, of the jump in class made.

From the outset, the Armagh school – under the guiding hand of former Tyrone forward Mattie McGleenan – proved too big, too strong and too slick.

With the wind at their backs, they made all the early running to move into a 1-4 to 0-1 lead by the first water break, midfielder Tadhg Grimley rising above Patrick McFarlane in the Knock goals to palm home their major.

The rest of the first half followed a familiar pattern, with Knock kicking away possession far too often and Rhys Stephens providing the finishing touches as St Pat’s countered to good effect.

When the impressive Jake Toal bagged St Patrick’s College’s second goal, it quelled a brief OLSPCK uprising at the beginning of the second half - spearheaded by the lively Emmet Rogers - the eventual outcome never in doubt as McGleenan’s men kept their opponents at arm’s length.

Coming up against schools of such pedigree, and with final group opponents St Mary’s, Magherafelt already looking a force to be reckoned with, 2021 was always going to be about testing the water.

The group that shared last year’s MacLarnon Cup with St Pius X College, Magherafelt have largely moved on, and the easy call would have been to stay where they were. Instead, though, the decision was taken to make the step up.

Long-serving teacher Liam McKenna was one of those who started the O’Neills ball rolling at Knock back in the early 1990s, at a time when Gaelic football and hurling were something of an after-thought.

Despite the school’s wide sporting interests, steady and sustained progress has been made. Yet McKenna vividly recalls how it went when Knock initially moved up to MacLarnon level.

“We were beat out the gate,” said the Bredagh clubman in the moments after yesterday’s game.

However, with feeder clubs such as Bredagh, Carryduff, St Brigid’s, St Paul’s and Darragh Cross all thriving, the momentum that has carried them across recent decades can continue to do so – but patience, and perspective, are prerequisites.

“We’re one of only two colleges in Ulster who played MacRory and Mageean Cup this year. We also play highly competitive soccer, rugby, basketball, camogie, ladies' football, netball, so we’ve a lot of kids in our school who are getting an awful lot of sport,” said McKenna, who is part of a management team that also includes Paddy Hannigan, Joe Shields and Paul McGlade.

“When I first started at the school, we were playing Belfast C. It was a piecemeal effort really. So for us to put our name on a MacLarnon - albeit we shared it - was a great achievement, and we thought this was a good opportunity to go and test ourselves at a higher level.

“Some of the boys probably met the decision with a wee bit of trepidation, and others were like ‘great, that’s what we should be doing’.

“We’ve been a bit naïve at times, and some of the schools with that MacRory heritage nearly have a five or six point gap on us from the start because they believe they’re a MacRory school, where our boys are still trying to convince themselves.

“But there’s still a positivity about having done this - it has to be a long-term thing, there’s no point just doing it for one year. After that, we need to be playing A grade football all through the school so that when they go up to MacRory, these teams aren’t frightening them any more.

“I’m not sure everybody understands the level of commitment that’s required to play at this level, but we need to be doing it from first year right through, in order to be competitive in 10 years’ time.

“That’s our aim.”

OLSPCK scorers: E Rogers (0-5, 0-3 frees), F Rogers (0-1)

St Patrick’s, Armagh scorers: R Stephens (0-5, 0-3 frees), M Haughey (0-4, 0-2 frees), J Toal (1-1), T Grimley (1-1)

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