ALMOST three years ago, Ross McQuillan decided Aussie Rules wasn’t for him and so he left Melbourne’s Essendon one season into a two-year contract and returned to Cullyhanna.
After sampling the other side of the world, McQuillan is staying close to home these days. He’s working with his dad Martin in the family fruit and veg business and playing his football for club and county.
News of his return delighted all in Cullyhanna. Talents like McQuillan don’t come along that often and losing a player who had already played at senior level for Armagh before he headed Down Under was a hammerblow.
But the club struggled when he returned and there was relegation to intermediate level. However, under the management of Stephen Reel the potent St Patrick’s outfit began the season with determination and their ambition was to become the first-ever Armagh club to win the Ulster Intermediate Championship.
They’re now just one more win away from making that happen.
“We’d love to be the first Armagh club to put our name on the trophy,” says McQuillan.
“Hopefully we can do it. This is exactly what I was hoping for whenever I came home but it wasn’t just as easy as what it seems or what some people might think - it definitely wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
“Last year and the year before we were struggling. We didn’t win a home game in two years and we were relegated two years’ on-the-bounce.
“Last year wasn’t great for us at all but then we got a lot of boys back, the likes of Kieran McCooey and Mickey Murray came back and Pearse Casey and Sean Connell were fit again and they’re all senior inter-county-quality footballers, or have the potential to be if they wanted to, so they were absolutely massive for us coming back. All the boys have worked hard, especially when we (himself, Aidan Nugent and Jason Duffy) were away with Armagh. They did a lot of heavy work and these sort of days, looking forward to an Ulster final, make that sort of work all worthwhile.”
McCooey, Casey, Connell and Murray were all integral components of the Cullyhanna side that came within a whisker of winning an Armagh senior title. After taking out Crossmaglen at the semi-final stage, Cullyhanna went into the decider as slight favourites but Maghery denied them in the Orchard County showpiece.
After that there wasn’t that much to shout about - but those days have made this season all the more enjoyable.
“It would be massive for Cullyhanna to win an Ulster title,” said McQuillan.
“Before this we’d won three intermediate titles and got to a couple of senior finals. To get this far, it’s remarkable for us.”
Last Sunday’s 11-point victory over Down’s Liatroim, Cullyhanna became only the third club (after Ballymacnab in 2006 and Culloville in 2011) to make the official Ulster intermediate decider.
“It probably wasn’t as convincing as it looked on the scoreboard,” said McQuillan.
“In the first half we missed a couple of opportunities but that was down to their pressure. There was only two points in it at half-time but then we came out in the second half and we kept chipping away with simple scores. We had a wee period of dominance and got a nice cushion built up and we were able to see the game out.”
The same again will do very nicely in the final but Cavan’s Ballyhaise will be a tough nut to crack in the final on December 10. The Breffni county champions – also in their first Ulster final - travelled to Healy Park last weekend and broke the hearts of fancied Derry champions Glenullin with a last-gasp goal.
“It’ll be a big challenge now because they’re after beating a good outfit in Glenullin,” says McQuillan.
“They dogged it out and they put up a good score – 1-14 is quare kicking, especially in winter football. So they’ll definitely be dangerous, they’ll need looked after.”
Armagh fans haven’t yet seen the best of the talented McQuillan. He was mostly restricted to substitute appearances in last year’s Championship when scores in extra-time against Derry (in the Ulster final) and Monaghan (in the All-Ireland quarter-final) pushed the Orchard county to the brink of a momentous season.
“When we go back to Armagh I think we’ll have a spring in our step,” he said.
“This run has given us boys great confidence that hopefully we can push on with Armagh as well and bring that winning-confidence because it does build-up. When you get going, it’s great buzz and a great feeling.”
Since the start of the year with Armagh, McQuillan has clocked up a lot of miles on his legs but he’s not complaining. There’s nothing like victory to keep the muscles fresh, he says.
“I haven’t found it hard to be honest,” he explained.
“When you’re winning everything is a lot easier. If you were getting beat all the time it might be a bit of a different story but everything is all-good whenever you’re winning, so long may it continue.”