St Mary’s Magherafelt take maiden MacRory titleMarch 18, 2017
Danske Bank MacRory Cup final: St Colman’s, Newry 0-13 St Mary’s, Magherafelt 0-19
Brendan Crossan in the Athletic Grounds for the Irish News
IT’S a day they will never forget for the rest of their lives. St Mary’s, Magherafelt did something they’ve never done before. They reached out and touched the sky – and the feeling was indescribable.
For many of these young Convent players the memories they created in the Cathedral City yesterday will never dim with time. Years from now, when they think back to St Patrick’s Day 2017, they will always be 17.
The scenes at the final whistle, the joyous pitch invasion, flags, banners, painted faces and the outpouring of emotion were sights to behold.
After falling at the final hurdle in 1996 and 2003, St Mary’s celebrated their first-ever MacRory Cup triumph with all they had at a heaving Athletic Grounds.
Moments after lifting the silverware, captain fantastic Declan Cassidy summed up the school’s historic achievement.
“[At the final whistle] I was just thinking of my family,” said the Bellaghy teenager.
“They raised me. This is for them and for the school especially.
“Seven years I’ve been there and this is all I ever wanted. I didn’t think I would be holding the MacRory Cup for them for the first time ever. I couldn’t have asked for a better day.
“It’s the best day of my life so far.”
St Mary’s entered yesterday’s showpiece decider as underdogs – but, to a man, they played the shirts of their backs and were emphatic winners.
But there are always two narratives on days like yesterday.
Dotted around the field was a collection of broken hearts.
The St Colman’s, Newry players will look back on this day and regret that they never quite reached their potential.
Perhaps they weren’t allowed, for St Mary’s were insatiable all over the field.
Kevin Brady’s players really and truly lived this final.
Undaunted by history and their opponents’ rich tradition in the competition, the St Mary’s players played with their hearts as well as their heads.
They were tactically better and cooler in pressure moments.
Their six-point winning margin didn’t flatter them one bit.
They had heroes in every sector of the pitch.
Goalkeeper Odhran Lynch made a couple of fantastic saves, notably his tip-over from Eoghan McDonnell’s rasping drive in the 42nd minute that kept St Mary’s four ahead instead of two.
Brave-hearted defenders Conor McCluskey and Matthew Loughran each made outstanding blocks at either end of yesterday’s final that were just as significant as Kevin Small’s sumptuous five points he mined from the St Colman’s defence.
Wearing number five, Declan Cassidy’s penetrating runs kept asking questions of the St Colman’s defence and when St Mary’s needed more defensive cover in the closing stages to shut out danger man Rian O’Neill, the captain dutifully obliged.
In the first half, Simon McErlain stuck to O’Neill like Velcro and availed of every opportunity to get forward.
Eamon Kelly was immense too, making terrific in-roads from his wing-back position.
Small proved the ruthless finisher but fellow attackers Liam Quinn and Cormac Murphy played vital roles too.
“We knew at the start of the year that this team had great potential,” said St Mary’s manager and former Antrim player Kevin Brady.
“And then the more we worked with them the more we saw other attributes as well as high skill levels. They are very gutsy and they came through a lot of hard games and that stood us in good stead for today’s game.”
Brady insisted they never discussed the fact that the school had never won the MacRory Cup in its 95-year history prior to the final.
“We didn’t want to put that pressure on them and you’re always a bit anxious because finals can be quite nervy affairs and you think that they could freeze,” he said.
“You always have that worry in your mind for schoolboys. We didn’t start particularly well but we grew into the game and in the second half I thought we were worthy winners.”
St Mary’s boasted five Antrim players in their starting line-up and used a further three from the bench yesterday with substitute Tiarnan McAteer of Creggan hitting two key scores to keep St Colman’s at arms length in the closing stages.
They fashioned a 0-8 to 0-6 wind-assisted half-time lead with Daniel Bradley finding his ranges from placed balls.
Matthew McCreesh and Aaron Gribben looked lively in the St Colman’s attack and both got on the score-sheet in the first half.
But they never saw enough of the ball because so many of St Colman’s moves broke down before they reached their own ’50.
Rian O’Neill kept St Colman’s in touch, though, with some fine scores while everyone in The Athletic Grounds awaited a second half tsunami that never materialised.
Despite playing into the breeze in the second half, St Mary’s hit three points without reply to put themselves 0-11 to 0-6 ahead after 37 minutes.
Although St Mary’s were much superior to their rivals, they still couldn’t land a knock-out blow.
Through sheer force of will, Conor O’Neill made some devastating runs from midfield that St Mary’s simply couldn’t contain.
The Killeavy ace narrowed St Mary’s lead to 0-15 to 0-13 with six minutes remaining – but that’s as good as it got for Cathal Murray’s brave charges.
In search of a game-swinging goal, St Colman’s dropped some clever high ball in on top of Rian O’Neill, moved to the edge of the square in the second half, but Lynch, McCluskey, Sean Kelly and Loughran formed a human wall that proved insurmountable.
Asked at pitch-side what it was like to be part of this group of players, Cassidy said: “Brotherhood. We are a family. You could see on the pitch today – everybody was fighting for each other right to the last. Even though we were four or five up every man gave it all.
“Thankfully our fitness levels in the second half [helped], the passion and determination the boys showed to make this ours is an unbelievable feeling.”
A Hogan Cup semi-final against St Peter’s College, Wexford may be a mere four days away – but the St Mary’s boys should enjoy the moment.
After all, the Derry school has waited several life-times to see what paradise feels like.
St Colman’s, Newry: M Nugent; L Brown, S McCarthy, C Killen (0-1); F McElroy, M Braniff, P Fegan; C O’Neill (0-1), R Garvey; J McCartan (0-1), R O’Neill (0-5, 0-3 frees, 0-1 ’45), E O’Donnell (0-1); M McCreesh (0-1), C McConville (0-1 free), A Gribben (0-2) Subs: E Byrne for M McCreesh (34), R Carr for M Braniff (37), C McCartan for L Brown (48)
Yellow cards: R Garvey (31), F McElroy (45)
Black card: C Killen replaced by J McKee (53)
St Mary’s, Magherafelt: O Lynch; C McCluskey, S Kelly, M Loughran; D Cassidy (0-1), C Devlin (0-1), E Kelly; K McCann, T Doherty (0-1); A Connolly (0-1), D Bradley (0-6, 0-5 frees), S McErlain; L Quinn (0-2), K Small (0-5), C Murphy Subs: T McAteer (0-2) for K McCann (43), M Rodgers for A Connolly (60), J McCann for E Kelly (60)
Yellow cards: K McCann (12), E Kelly (24)
Referee: M McNally (Monaghan)