One step beyond... Granemore prepare for first ever shot at Gerry Fegan Cup in Armagh final against Crossmaglen
THE last man, woman or child turned out the lights on the way out of Granemore on that Sunday in 2006.
Ross Finn remembers it like it was yesterday: Granemore beating Whitecross in the Armagh intermediate final at Silverbridge. When the long whistle blew to confirm victory, him and his brother – both decked out in the green and white – ran on to the pitch to celebrate.
Dreams came true, memories were made and youngsters were inspired that day and for 16 years it remained the biggest occasion in the club's history.
Until this weekend.
On Sunday, the rural community will empty once again and this time there's an even bigger prize up for grabs. The biggest in Armagh football.
After five semi-final near-misses, Sunday is Granemore's first-ever appearance in the Orchard county showpiece. Club stalwarts who wondered, and perhaps doubted, if they'd never see the day will pack the stands at the Athletic Grounds and youngsters – decked out in the green and white – will hang on the fences hoping the St Mary's side can shock favourites Crossmaglen.
Finn will be on the field this time of course. An Armagh player now, he's one of the mainstays in Niall McAleenan's side and as a versatile full-back he marshals a defence that has yet to concede a goal in this unprecedented championship run.
Now 26, Charlie Doyle was the manager when Finn made his senior debut in 2013 at the age of 17. Granemore were already an established Division One side by then (they've been in the top flight since 2010) and have been swimming with the sharks in the senior championship since that win in 2006.
A senior breakthrough eluded them until this year but they've come agonisingly close several times, most recently three years ago when Ballymacnab just about held them off in extra-time.
“That year we were going into the last 10 minutes of games two or three points down and we were clawing our way back,” Finn recalls.
“We were never a beaten docket regardless of the time on the clock. We got the equaliser three minutes' into injury-time and we had clawed back three points at that stage.
“Going into extra-time we probably didn't have the legs and Ballymacnab had that wee bit of quality. The hunger and desire was in Granemore at the time but we just didn't have enough that night.”
Those battling qualities are still there. This season, Granemore have pushed on thanks to victories over Pearse Og (1-10 to 0-10), Mullaghbawn (1-9 to 0-8) and, in the semi-final, Killeavy (2-9 to 0-8). The defensive stats are mighty impressive and they bring into focus manager Niall McAleenan's keen eye for structure and the work ethic in the team.
Meanwhile, evergreen forwards Jason O'Neill, Ryan Rafferty and Tony McClelland have conjured up scores at vital times.
“Ryan, Jason, Darren Carr, Kevin Kelly in goals, Tony… Granemore have played in five senior semi-finals and those boys have played in all of them,” Finn explains.
“Jason, Tony and Kevin were all on the team that won the intermediate championship in 2006 so this is a squad that is widely spread among ages – we've boys from 17 up to 34.”
Young and old will play their part on Sunday. Veteran Rafferty got the crucial goal in the first round against Pearse Og and it was McClelland who, after an unfortunate misjudgement by the goalkeeper, bagged the game-changing major against Killeavy.
Cross, without a senior title since 2019, await on Sunday and Finn rightly says he wants to appreciate and embrace the experience of the final build-up.
“You don't know when the next time is going to come around so you have to enjoy it and hope that everything goes to plan on the day,” he said.
“The big thing is for the community, I remember 2005 when Granemore won the intermediate against Whitecross up in Silverbridge. We were looking at the guys (the players) and for us they were superstars. So we're just hoping now that we can inspire the next generation of young Granemore people and hopefully the club can go from success to success.
“At the time we probably expected Granemore to have more success and kick on. Unfortunately we haven't had any championship titles since but we're hoping we can push on this Sunday and go that extra step.”
He knows Cross well of course and with Armagh he's played alongside many of the men he'll be up against on Sunday. He knows what they are capable of but he says the key for Granemore is to concentrate on playing their own game and not put their focus on frustrating the favourites.
“I know a lot of the Cross lads and I know they're top quality players,” he says.
“Their club has a rich history and you can only show admiration and respect for what they've done since 1995 as a club. We have respect for them but ultimately we're going out to put our stamp on the game and to try and play the game we want to play.
“Yes, we want to nullify Cross but we also want to play our own game and that's the thing for us: We don't want to get too caught up in trying to stifle the opposition, we want to stick to our own gameplan as well. If we do that then, please God, we'll be there or thereabouts.”