MacRory Cup: Testing times for St Patrick’s, Dungannon

October 18, 2016

THE MacRory Cup has travelled down the Killymeal Road on five occasions, but not since 2009, when St Patrick’s, Dungannon last reigned supreme in Ulster colleges football.

Those seven years without a title have seemed like an eternity at one of Gaelic football’s renowned nurseries, a place where excellence in ethos and performance have gone hand in hand, producing many of Tyrone’s most celebrated stars.

The Academy has gone close in the intervening seasons, losing finals in 2011 and 2015.

Last spring, St Patrick’s, Maghera somehow survived in the dying moments of a semi-final cliff-hanger against their Tyrone rivals to go on and land a 15th title.

But it’s the joyous memories, coupled with an unspoken but inexorable duty to uphold the noble sporting principles so dearly held at St Patrick’s that will drive on the latest squad assembled for this fresh challenge in 2016/’17.

It started badly with a chastening defeat in the opening game against Abbey CBS, and will be followed by further testing Group B clashes with St Macartan’s, Monaghan, St Ronan’s, Lurgan and last year’s beaten finalists St Paul’s, Bessbrook.

“Any of the teams at MacRory level are always going to be difficult. Some of the teams in that particular section, we haven’t played in recent years in the group stages, so it will be an interesting enough challenge for us,” said coach Ciaran Gourley.

A new format, made necessary by an expansion of the competition to include a record 14 teams, means some of the participants will not last beyond Christmas.

The prospect of an early exit is something Gourley is determined to guard against.

“You do have that possibility, so I suppose we have to ensure that doesn’t happen us,” he said. “The key thing is to make sure that you still have football after Christmas, because that’s when the competition really kicks into gear.

“If you happen to lose a couple of games early on, before you know it you could be out of the competition

“We’re coming from a low setting for this particular group, and if we can ensure that we qualify, that will be the first focus and the main aim.

“This group wouldn’t have been as successful as other groups that we have had, looking back to the teams that we had over the last two years, they had been particularly strong down through the school.
“This particular group hasn’t been just as strong, but I suppose the challenge for them, especially the final year students, is to try and achieve the best that they can.

“So we’ll definitely be pushing them as hard as we can. It’s all about trying to give them opportunities, and if we can get the opportunity of getting to the knock-out stages, hopefully we can build on that.”
Regulars on last season’s side Paul Donaghy and Jude Campbell are back again to lead the challenge, and the input of Brian McNulty, Stephen Talbot, Ruairi Conlon, Liam Nugent, Oran Mallon and Liam Hughes will be important.

While expectation may not be sky-high from a group of players who have not been accustomed to landing trophies along the route to MacRory level, Gourley is hoping they can develop a system which will see them realise their potential.

“If you get a group of players that gel together and have the right frame of mind, you never know where they might go,” he said.
“We’ll try and encourage and strive to ensure that our boys are giving their best, and if they give their best, that could lead to success. But it’s a long road to get there, and it’s only starting now for us.”

Gourley, who has been guiding the fortunes of the school’s MacRory Cup teams since 2008 and will once again be assisted by Peter Heron and Kevin Collins, has experienced the highs and the lows while toiling at the coal face of colleges football.

But disappointments have in the past been used as a driving force, and he heads into a fresh campaign still stinging from the memory of February’s semi-final, when Maghera survived a late blitz to
win an absorbing contest by two points.

“Naturally it was very disappointing. We knew that was going to be the pivotal game probably within the competition, both teams had talented squads of players,” he said.

“Looking back on it, we were extremely disappointed on the night. We thought we maybe did enough to get through that game, but in fairness to Maghera, they had a lot of good players and just on that particular occasion they got over the line on us.

“It’s swings and roundabouts. We had beaten them the year before in the quarter-final, and we went on to get to the final, but unfortunately didn’t achieve success.

“Looking back on the last two years, we would be disappointed that we haven’t achieved success at MacRory level, but there’s lots of teams fighting for it, and we just fell short.”

Francis Mooney Published in The Irish News