TOWARDS the end of last season, St Patrick’s Cullyhanna were staring intermediate football in the face.
Emigration and long-term injuries had taken their toll on the struggling south Armagh club.
Every exit, every absentee hurt their prospects.
To stand any chance of preserving their senior status - always hard-earned for a club like Cullyhanna who was forced to fold its reserve team due to a lack of numbers - they needed to win the last four or five league games in the top flight.
But their fate was sealed over one of the last weekends of the season when they crashed to Mullaghbawn on the Friday night and lost to Clan na Gael less than 48 hours later.
Not even the return of their county men could save them.
It was lights out for Stephen Reel’s side and a palpable sense of impending doom.
Spool forward to last Monday night in Garvaghey and the Cullyhanna manager is speaking to members of the media discussing their chances ahead of Sunday’s Ulster Intermediate Football final against Cavan champions Ballyhaise.
For most of the five seasons in charge of his native Cullyhanna, Reel’s primary role was to “keep the thing between the ditches as best we could”.
Reel himself had retired, Ciaran McKeever was approaching the end of his playing days and other stalwarts such as Eugene Casey had stepped away.
Their two senior final appearances in 2013 and 2016 and three league titles seemed light years away.
In recent seasons, they were haemorrhaging players to the point where a lot of their reserve team players had to step up to senior.
“Whenever we first took the job five years ago, we were aware that there was transition in the club,” Reel acknowledges.
“There were a lot of boys going travelling, a big void had to be filled and there were a few hard years ahead.
“Our second team players basically had to step up and be our senior team for a couple of years. We still don’t have the numbers for a seconds team.
“That was the start of it. We knew Intermediate was a possibility.”
When news filtered through to the players dotted around the globe that their club had been relegated, they decided to return home.
“Things happen for a reason,” Reel says.
“Boys came back home and the senior boys who were away travelling… it hurt them to see Cullyhana at Intermediate level.
“In fairness, they wanted to come home and put it right. You’d Tony Donnelly, Ciaran McCooey, Sean Connell, Mickey Murray who was out the previous season. They are senior players - not just squad players.
“And Pearse Casey [now captain] was also away for a spell and other boys retired.”
The small band of Cullyhanna club members had a stark choice after getting relegated: to fade away and languish in the intermediate ranks for a generation or to fight and get back to senior football as soon as possible.
They chose the harder road.
“It hurt us as much as the players - everyone was hurting. We just sat down and had a good chat about it and put our cards on the table.
“We looked at what had happened, and we knew what we needed to get back to senior football and get back quick.
“The aim was to get back in the first year. It had to be the first year or you could be there for five, six years - 10 years could go past and you’d still be in it. More players could go travelling as a result. The best thing was to bounce back quick.”
With the likes of county stars Jason Duffy, Ross McQuillan and Aidan Nugent putting their shoulder to the wheel, it increased Cullyhanna’s prospects of getting back into the senior championship quickly.
“They are three great players who are playing very well for us," Reel says.
“They’ve really stepped up. This run of games has done Aidan (Nugent) the world of good and Ross too - they needed football after coming off the back of the county campaign. It has brought them on leaps and bounds.
“At training, they are the first there and last to leave. They are real professional athletes that way. They drive standards on.
“The thing is, over the last number of years, there’s been a big weight on those boys, when they come back from the county scene, to do it all. I think with more senior players around the camp now, there’s less responsibility on them and they can just row in and play their part.”
Cullyhanna made a statement county final win over St Paul’s – pushing the gap to 22 points by the end – and thanks to Nugent’s last-gasp score, they edged out a fancied Pomeroy side in their provincial opener and had less trouble with Liatroim in their semi-final.
Ballyhaise hammered Downings in their quarter-final and nipped Derry champions Glenullin in their last four clash to book a meeting with the Armagh champions - a county that has never won an Ulster intermediate title.
Reel adds: “We realised the boys had come back from travelling and we’d boys coming back from long-term injuries.
“We knew this team should be in an Ulster final. We knew we were good enough to be in it and we probably felt we shouldn’t be in intermediate football.
“But it would be massive for the club to win an Ulster title.”
Throughout the season, Reel has been assisted by club-mate and Armagh coach Ciaran McKeever.
“Ciaran is a great coach. His ability to transfer tactics from a meeting or video analysis to a training field is first class.
“We’re lucky to have him on board doing that.
“We’ve no outside players or managers and it will make it that extra bit special if we get over the line on Sunday.”