GAA Football

Steven McDonnell: Memories of playing at St Paul's festive feast of football are something I will always cherish

Dungiven's Odhran Murphy celebrates scoring a goal against Burren in the semi-final of the Ulster Minor Football Tournament at St Paul's GAC at the weekend. Picture: Seamus Loughran
Steven McDonnell

This time of year, I often think back to my minor playing days with my club, and the extended championship campaigns we used to have playing in the Ulster Minor Football Tournament down at the St Paul's club in Belfast.

These were very fond memories and to think that it was over 25 years ago, is simply hard to believe. The only training I ever did at senior level during December was with Armagh, and while not being disrespectful to the tournament, the appetite to prepare for the Dr McKenna Cup was just not the same as trying to prepare to win an Ulster title with your club-mates.

If you were fortunate enough to get through the first round match, then you got the chance to train right up to Christmas because the semi-finals and final were normally scheduled to be played on St Stephen's Day and New Years Day.

Thankfully both years we played in this tournament, we did just that. We got beat the first year in the semi-final after a replay to Loup and the second year, we made it to the decider but unfortunately an excellent Ballinderry team beat us.

Both of these teams then went onto win Ulster titles at senior level and Ballinderry, of course, went the whole way, winning the All-Ireland title in 2002.

The drive to Belfast was always something we looked forward to and back then, some supporters even travelled on the bus with us. It wasn't always just about game day, though, as the team spirit was built up in the training sessions that ultimately led to the bigger games.

We had two cracking minor teams back then, and we got the best out of each other by pushing one another on through the muck and gutters of Killeavy. The runs that our manager at the time, John Carroll put us through where torturous but the sense of satisfaction we used to get walking off the pitch outweighed the pain we went through on it.

December is a hard month to motivate yourself to do outdoor training sessions with the dark cold evenings and sometimes hard surfaces due to the frost in the air, but it had to be done and looking back now, we loved every minute of it.

Your feet were always wet and cold on these nights and it was then that I picked up on a wee tip that saw me through many winter training sessions throughout my career. I would rub a small bit of Deep Heat into the feet before pulling on the socks and trust me, this was a game changer for me. Aaron Kernan once saw me do this at Armagh training and would often remind me about it. Try it out if you haven't done so already.

More than 25 years on and most of our minor teams are still living in the Killeavy area with the exception of a few and plenty of us have our own kids now playing for the club and working towards building their own memories. That's what sport is all about. It's about building up fond memories and forming friendships that last you your lifetime.

Friendships don't only come from your team-mates, but sometimes your opponents too and thankfully, when I catch up with some of the guys I played against, the banter is always in full flow, especially over a few pints.

The Ulster Minor Tournament has gone from strength to strength over the years and it's brilliant that a new generation of footballers are being given the opportunity to represent their clubs at this level and to live the days that I for one once played in. This is testament to the many volunteers that organise the competition on an annual basis and put in the endless hours to ensure everything is run smoothly.

This will be my last column of 2022 and while we reflect on the year gone by, there have been a few highs but one of great loss for myself with the passing of my mother back in May. As a family it will be our first Christmas without her, but like my footballing memories, I hope that the fantastic memories that we have of my mum while she was alive will guide us through the festive period. I have no doubt that they will.

I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a very Happy and Peaceful New Year spent with loved ones.