Our reporter Shaun Casey takes a visit to Granemore ahead of a historic first ever senior championship final appearance
LIKE all small rural clubs throughout the country, there isn’t much to Granemore. A pub, a chapel, a local school and a football field. But the community is thriving at the moment.
A seven-point win over Killeavy in the Armagh Championship semi-final confirmed their spot in the senior decider for the first time in their history.
Anything that can be painted green and white has been painted green and white. Cars, cows, you name it. Granemore is bursting with excitement about what is to come this Sunday.
Flags, bunting and good luck signs have been plastered everywhere, and the celebrations have already started. The camogs got the show on the road last weekend as they tasted championship triumph with a two-point win over Ballymacnab.
All attention will now swing towards to footballers who hope to keep the feel-good factor swirling around the club for another few weeks.
At the club’s coffee morning last Sunday, the younger crew all got the chance to meet their heroes. Cheers echoed as the players, fresh off the training field, entered the community hall. One of the older generation, who’s just as enthused as the many youngsters running around, roared “Up Granemore” followed by more cheers of encouragement.
Photo’s recorded moments that will last a lifetime and the players signed autographs, jerseys and chatted to the people they do all this for. There’s a great buzz around the club, but in the back of the players’ minds, it’s all about Sunday and what they can do to create even more history.
“With the girls being in the final, you want to respect them and see them over the line, so we’ve just been going about our business quite quietly and obviously bar this morning we’re going to continue to do that,” said defender Ross Finn
“That’s the way we’ve sort of thought about it and looked at it. And at the end of the day, we’ve achieved nothing so it’s just about going well at training and trying to get over the line next weekend.
“Obviously we’re incredibly proud of all the girls and what they did, and we want to do the same as they did. It definitely gives the boys a wee bit more motivation.”
Finn is a crucial part of a Granemore defence that has yet to concede a goal throughout the entire championship, keeping clean sheets against Pearse Óg, Mullaghbawn and Killeavy.
“The big thing is lads communicating with one another. The likes of Cathal (O’Hare), Darren (Carr) and myself, we’ve been playing with each other for the guts of ten years now,” continued Finn, who is currently part of Kieran McGeeney’s Armagh squad along with fellow defender Kieran Doyle.
“Again, you get that sort of fluidity, and you get to know each other and ultimately then if there’s good communication there, you can cancel things out. Obviously with Niall (McAleenan, the manager) coming in and putting in a decent defensive structure with us has helped.
“I don’t think defence starts with just the defence, it starts with Jason (O’Neill) in the forward line, Brendan (Boylan) in the midfield, it’s a real team effort. It’s a real team thing and that’s the reason the defence is coming out on top.”
Joint-captain Darren Carr, who leads the team alongside O’Neill, is another mainstay of the Granemore rear-guard and he quickly points out his side will be severely tested on Sunday as they come up against “the best forward line in the county.”
“We know the task in front of us and I know we’ve kept a clean sheet to date but it’s very fine margins. You saw the penalty the last day (against Killeavy), that skimmed the post and another one was blocked on the line.
“Football, it’s very fine margins and you can concede an unlucky goal, anybody can. We know the task in front of us and we are coming up against the best forward line in the county. We’re preparing as best we can for that and we’re looking forward to the challenge.
“We’re honestly just taking it as another step in the process. We haven’t got too hyped up about any of the games so far, we’ve just taken it one game at a time, and we are where we are now.
“The semi-final was a big hurdle for us to get over because it had been a sticking point for us in previous years.
“We’ve got over that now and we’re going into the final fresh and it’s a new challenge.
“Yes, we haven’t been there before but it’s a game of football. We’re trying not to get too distracted by anything else, we’ll let the supporters enjoy the build-up but it’s just about a 60-minute game of football for us.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Granemore this year. They endured a horrendous start to the season and relegation from Division 1A looked likely after the opening few rounds of the league. But they eventually found their groove and grinded out a few important results, including a home tie against Crossmaglen, to turn their year around.
“We had three home games on the trot against Madden, Maghery and Cross. We really set our stall out that we had to win those three home games in a row, and we did,” said manager McAleenan.
“We had a real battle against Madden and the game could have gone either way as well, but we got through that one and then started to build a wee bit of belief.
“But the main thing was just getting players back.
“When we came in at the start there was literally nine or ten boys that had played against Ballymacnab in the championship last year that weren’t playing and then obviously you had Ross and Kieran on the county panel.
“It was very frustrating from that sort of aspect but gradually we started building a wee bit of belief and getting results does that.
“Then steadily, performance have started to improve and having everyone back and everyone together, you’re able to do a lot more on the training field that maybe we weren’t able to do earlier on in the season.
“Then the first round of the championship we got Pearse Ógs, and people maybe looked at that as a favourable draw, but we didn’t play overly well in that game. But since that we’ve built, and belief has just steadily come and having senior players stepping up and putting in big performances has been massive as well.”
Top marksman and joint-captain Jason O’Neill added: “It’s hard to look past the injuries we had and the men we had missing. I think even with the new management coming it, there’s serious effort put in and serious training done earlier in the year. But it takes a bit of time for us to get up to their standards and appreciate what they’re asking of us.
“Once you get one win that belief starts coming back into it and nothing beats winning. But I think the biggest thing was just getting all the players out on the pitch and not just for the matches but for training as well.”
Crossmaglen are the kingpins of Armagh football and are chasing their 46th county title and will be carrying a lot of hurt into Sunday’s clash following their defeats in the last two senior finals.
But Granemore can take confidence from their league win over the Rangers.
“They’re one of the most respected clubs in Ireland and nearly every team in Armagh looks up to Crossmaglen,” added towering midfielder Brendan Boylan. “They set the standards so that’s what our club is trying to do and what we’re going to try and match.”
McAleenan continued: “Up in Crossmaglen that day, at half time we were maybe seven or eight points down.
“If I’m being brutally honest and I spoke to the rest of the management about it at the time, we probably should have been going in at half time 15 points down.
“We rallied in the second half, and we were possibly unlucky not to get something out of the game but the way the first half went I don’t think we deserved to.
“We put in a reasonably good performance against them here at home and we did go 9-4 up at half time. Cross pulled it back and went a couple of points up and we managed to see it over the line but our want at that stage was probably a bit greater than theirs because we had to get points on the board.”
There’ll be plenty more “Up Granemore” shouts come Sunday and the Athletic Grounds will be awash with green and white. Granemore are intent on making more history and that strong community spirit will be needed more than ever to get them over the final hurdle.