GAA Football

Win at St Paul's, win at senior

Emmett McKeever lifts the Seamus McFerran Cup after Dungiven’s Ulster Club SFC win in 1997, seven years after being part of the club’s win in the Ulster Club Minor Football Tournament at St Paul’s. McKeever is now joint-manager of the Dungiven team facing Four Masters in Sunday's final. Picture: History of St Canice's GAC book

WHEN Emmett McKeever stands in the Dungiven dugout tomorrow afternoon, St Paul's will be nothing unfamiliar to him.

Now joint-manager of the Derry champions as he and Darrell O'Kane seek to guide them past Four Masters, it is a first Ulster minor decider since McKeever himself was wing-back on the team that won here in 1990.

They had six of St Pat's Maghera's Hogan Cup winning team with them, led by the sublime attacking talents of Geoffrey McGonagle and Eunan O'Kane, who was perhaps the greatest footballer the world never saw.

Seven years later, McKeever led his club up the steps in St Tiernach's Park as Ulster senior champions. McKeever, McGonagle, Ryan Murphy and goalkeeper Owen McCloskey had all come through, while Barry Kelly came on as a sub in the provincial final.

The Ulster minor club tournament at St Paul's has provided a similar springboard for so many.

Take Enniskillen Gaels' 2017 success as the most recent starting point (giving anyone since then time to fill out), only four winners in the competition's 40-year history have failed to back up their minor success with senior honours in their own county.

(For the record, Kilrea (2007 winners and beaten finalists in 2004), Rostrevor (2004), Dungannon (1989) and Saul (1983) were the four.)

The Gaels first won back in 1988 and would win the Fermanagh senior title four years later. Paul Brewster and Simon Bradley were still going when they first reached the Ulster Club final in 1999.

In the true cyclical nature of club football, Bradley was the manager this year when the 2017 Ulster minor winning side came of age and bridged the club's 16-year gap between domestic senior successes.

Their five-year wait was relatively brief. Cian Newman, Jonny Cassidy, Eoin Beacom, Brandon Horan, Callum Jones, John Reihill and Conor Love all backbone a senior team that has a bright few years ahead.

The record of teams backing up minor success at Ulster level with senior success belongs solely to Derry clubs. Dungiven (1990 and 1997), Bellaghy (1994 and 2005), The Loup (1995 and 2003), Slaughtneil (1998 and, remarkably, 2014) and Ballinderry.

The Shamrocks did it twice. Their back-to-back winning teams in 1996 and 1997 provided Kevin McGuckin, Shane Mullan, Darren Conway and Conleith Gilligan for their All-Ireland club-winning success in 2002, with Jarlath Bell, Martin Harney and James Conway – goalkeeper in '97 – among those that would go on to win multiple Derry championships.

Connor Wilkinson, Michael McIver, Michael Bell, Raymond Wilkinson, James Bateson and Collie Devlin would all emerge from the 2002 team, with the late Aaron Devlin first off the 2008 production line in time to impact on their 2013 senior success.

It was a remarkable decade for the Shamrocks, whose misfortune in hindsight was to have such a blockade of talent all at once. Plenty of classy minors were earmarked for future brilliance, the likes of Thomas Maynes, Ronan Devlin, Gavin McGeehan, but couldn't get their foot in the door of the senior team.

Their four titles across 12 years was a record until Glen swallowed it all up at once, equalling it with their run from 2011 to 2014. We've seen how that's turned out this autumn. Eleven of their regular starting team played in at least one of those four teams, while Conleth McGuckian and brothers Ethan and Alex Doherty were all younger again. Only converted goalkeeper Connlan Bradley remains from before that time.

There are always exceptions to the rule, but Kilcoo did reach an Ulster minor final in 2009, where they were beaten by a point by Omagh. Ryan and Jerome Johnston became the main takeaways from that team, although Darragh O'Hanlon would have been involved in their All-Ireland winning campaign had injury not ruined his career.

Crossmaglen, too, are the obvious rule-breakers when it comes to needing to put the cart before the horse. Their All-Ireland winning teams had no grounding in the icy west Belfast of January bank holidays.

Their resurgence, however, is different. The O'Neill brothers, Rian and Oisin, and Stephen Morris have been the standouts from their 2015 minor team and even though they were hammered by Bellaghy in the 2018 decider, already Cian McConville, Tony and Dara O'Callaghan and Miceal Murray (then a wing-back and now in goals) all played against Granemore in this year's senior success in Armagh.

For most rural clubs, particularly, the line from St Paul's to senior titles is usually straight and true. Take Clontibret, who appeared in back-to-back minor finals in 2001 and 2002, winning the latter, having been beaten in '95 as well.

The Mones and the Coreys and the Greenans and the Hughes' backboned at different times. They've backed that up with eight Monaghan titles since 1997, having won just nine in their entire history previous to that.

Coalisland got no fewer than ten of their 2006 minor team through, winning Tyrone championships in 2010 and 2018. Even within four years, eight of the minors were starting seniors.

They say minor success is no guarantee of anything at senior, but winning an Ulster minor title seems to be damn close to it.

GAA Football