Our Season: Maghery make it a double

GOOD teams win one, great teams win two. That old sports maxim is oft trotted out, although its accuracy is up for discussion.

Take Maghery for example. In 2016, their seniors claimed the Armagh Senior title for the first time in the club’s then 110-year history.

That entire panel could have hung up the boots en masse, took up residence on Coney Island and never worn the blue and gold jerseys again and they still would go down as the most legendary team in the club’s history.

But ‘one and done’ was never going to satisfy them and after throwing away the 2017 final against Armagh Harps and losing back-to-back semi-finals to Ballymacnab and Crossmaglen respectively, the Gerry Fagan Cup revisited the Sean McDermott’s for a second time in 2020.

Brian Fox has been one of the stars for Maghery in recent years, he was also one of the panel members yet to get a winning medal as his studies meant that he missed out on that famous day against Cullyhanna five years ago.

For a man who has a decade of service to the team in the bank, that only increased his drive to join the winners’ club – but the forward said that the entire squad was dissatisfied with just one trophy.

“At the start of the year was everyone was looking around and thinking it wasn’t good enough,” said Fox, whose accuracy also extends to rugby as a Portadown place-kicker.

“There was two seasons gone without a final, and the last one we were in (2017) we didn’t give a good account of ourselves.
“I think there were a refocusing and an understanding that in 2020 we were going to have to push that bit harder.

“We weren’t too disheartened with our performances the year before. We watched the Crossmaglen semi-final loss back and for long periods we were on top but we weren’t getting the scores.

“I think when we saw that it was a case of we’re not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

“Finn Mo was in his first year in 2019 so this time we were going to go in with something similar, only maybe we’d be a bit cuter about it.

“Just winning one was definitely in boys’ minds. The older boys, we looked at them and said one is brilliant but those lads deserve two, three medals.

“There was a feeling that if we didn’t do it now, that second medal may never come.”

Ahead of the season, that was extended due to Covid-19, defender Ciaran Higgins was confident that they were still a heavyweight, and a county title was still attainable.

“We always knew we were capable of competing, we have been in the top four for a while,” he said. “I was going in relatively confident that we could put up a fight.

“Also there was definitely still the hunger there. The newer boys had it but the older boys still did too.

“We had the taste of victory in the 2016 final and then the taste of defeat in the ’17 final, and both stick with you. It’s that ’16 feeling you want back.”

Manager Finnian Moriarty was in his second year in charge and for the second season in-a-row, the championship draw pitted them against south Armagh side Dromintee.

In the 2019 group stages, Moriarty’s men had swatted their opponents away on home soil, cantering to victory when a stiff challenge had been anticipated.

The second meeting would be knockout though due to the pandemic situation, but Maghery were still deemed strong favourites when the draw was made.

When the match arrived, however, their opponents looked a tougher proposition having made an excellent start to the league season.

There was also the issue of the weather with temperatures reaching over 20°. The Maghery management did what they could to combat the heat, such as bringing buckets of ice for the water-break refreshments and doing much of the warm-up under the shade of the trees at Abbey Park.

In the end Maghery were 1-13 to 1-9 winners and that four-point margin was generous to Dromintee, if anything, as Moriarty’s side started to find some form that had been missing in their few league games prior to the match.

“It was the only 1A versus 1A match so we got a bit of a stinker of a draw,” Fox continued.

“Dromintee had come out of the traps, they had beaten Ballymacnab in the league, they were beating everyone really.

“We had played them quite a bit over the last two or three years and there wasn’t always as much between the sides as the scoreline sometimes suggested.

“For a few years we had started the championship poorly and that wasn’t even at the back of our minds, it was at the front of our minds.

“We had started poorly the previous few years losing to Madden and drawing with Annaghmore and those experiences, albeit poor ones, helped us focus for that game.

“It was a roasting hot day and I think both teams had to take some sting out of the match for it. It would have been higher scoring only for the weather.

There was probably 10 minutes of football with the ball just being kept around the middle because the legs were gone.”
Dromintee midfielder Darren McKenna was carrying an injury and, as a result, was stationed at full-forward from the off.

Instead of an expected battle with their 2016 captain James Lavery in midfield, McKenna was heading towards the square.

Higgins’s dovetailed nicely with Gerard Campbell to counter the threat though, competing aerially with the combative McKenna, who he knew from his Armagh days, and breaking forward at speed to put Dromintee on the back foot.

“If there was a small, nippy man in there at full-forward I’d be told to get out but if it was someone bigger I’d be put in beside them,” said Higgins.

“I know Darren, I know the way he likes to play – he’s tough and he’s old school. I knew he was carrying an injury so I didn’t think he’d be able to run about too much.

“I like that, someone physical coming in. I’d prefer that to a nippy player coming in.”

Next up for Maghery was a quarter-final with Clann Eireann. The Lurgan side were operating in Senior B but given their incredible underage success in recent seasons, they were always going to be a threat.

That turned out to be the case and, in fact, it proved to be Maghery’s closest match of the campaign.

A week after the scorcher against Dromintee, the sides met in horrendous conditions at the Athletic Grounds and Clann Eireann were two points up with 10 minutes to go.

Scores from Oisin Cushnahan and Aidan Forker forced extra-time though and with Fox excelling, Maghery secured a one-point win on a night where Clann Eireann really should have made them pay in normal time.

For Higgins though, it was a night of positives.

“We saw a lot of good points coming from that match. We didn’t play very well, Clann Eireann defended very, very well and we still found a way to win.

“They didn’t let us get any momentum going but I think it stood to us that the game went down to the wire.

“For me anyway, it built up a bit of confidence that we could be pushed to the edge but were still standing.”

Fox wasn’t surprised by Clann Eireann’s performance, especially as they had surprised Granemore in the first round.

“That was a tough one,” he said. “It was week-on-week and we came out of the Dromintee match with a couple of knocks.

“We played Dromintee and it was like Barbados and then the next week you were ready to change the socks after the warm-up.

“Loads of our boys know loads of the Clann Eireann boys and Finnian obviously knows a good lot of them, there were no doubt they were going to be pushing.

“They played some really, really good football against Granemore. We had played Granemore in the league a few weeks before and they beat us.

“Granemore are a dogged team and Clann Eireann were willing to put their shoulder to the wheel and that was a bad omen for us. It was one of those days, things weren’t going great, but it was probably one of the more rewarding wins because it was so hard-fought.

“It went to extra-time and I don’t think I had ever played extra-time before that. The first half of extra-time I ended up lining up out at half-back, it was just a case of do anything you can to get over the line.”

That win secured an eighth consecutive semi-final appearance for the Orchard club. However, not only did they have to contend with the fact that they had faltered at this stage in the two previous editions, they were also coming up against a Pearse Og side managed by Shane

McConville, who had brilliantly guided Maghery to their first title four years earlier.

Higgins said distractions like that soon disappear once the ball is thrown in.

“Once the whistle blows, all that goes out of your mind and you’re focussing on your opponent and what you need to do to get the better of them,” he said.

“We started poorly against the Ogs but when the water-break came we were able to reset and remind ourselves of what we had worked on in training.

“We started to use that work, especially on Ryan Kearney’s kick-outs for them. We pushed up and forced him to kick down the middle and that worked for us for a period.”

That water-break Higgins references allowed Moriarty and team captain David Lavery to bellow out some instructions to tune the players back in.

When they gathered for that huddle, they trailed 0-5 to 0-3. From there until the interval they outscored their opponents 1-5 to 0-0 – Stephen Cusack with their goal from a penalty – and they eventually won through 1-12 to 0-10.

Cross had more trouble in their semi-final as they saw off a gallant Killeavy outfit, but for the 22nd time in 25 years they were back in the county final. Their record in the previous 21? Played 21, won 21. Remarkable.

Maghery were deemed outsiders almost everywhere, but probably not in either changing room. The holders would have had respect for their opponent’s ability.

Moriarty’s side were confident they could win while Cross, managed by Moriarty’s former Armagh teammate Stephen Kernan, had had their problems with them before, losing twice to them in the 2017 season.

The south Armagh men had responded in 2019 and there was no doubt there was a strong rivalry between the clubs in recent times – some would call it healthy others would describe it as having needle.

Fox had no problem with that. Winning championships was never supposed to be easy and you could expect a bit of physicality from the top teams.

“You’re playing Cross in a county final and it was the sort of thing you thought about 10 years ago when Maghery were trying to get into a county final.

“If you want to win a county title you know you’re probably going to have to meet Cross and that has been obvious when the teams have met, there’s probably been that bit of needle.

“It matters a bit more when you get to play them and it was lined up for a great final.”

What followed was a decider for the ages. Crossmaglen played well and if you had offered them a 0-17 score against a team noted for its defensive solidity they would have been more than happy to accept.

Maghery, however, plundered four goals across the hour (4-9 in total) with Brendan Haveron, Fox, Aidan Forker and Ronan Lappin hitting the net to allow David Lavery to join his older brother James as the two men that had lifted the Gerry Fagan Cup on behalf of the Sean McDermott’s.

“I thought Cross played very well,” said Higgins of the final.

“I was thinking about it earlier, a couple of our boys who maybe haven’t been as involved as much in the past really stepped up this year and in the final.

“Caolán Hendron made some great saves for us. Brendy Haveron scoring a goal in the final, other young lads like Kevin Robinson and Oisin Cushanan really pushed it on.

“Some people might say if you win once it could be down to luck or whatever, but when you do it twice it’s really sending message about the footballing ability and the dedication of the team. It got us across the line.

“We were fortunate that the final was when it happened because there was some sort of crowd there and that made it special too.”

Maghery’s success last September means that they have won two of the last five championships on, as have Cross, while Armagh Harps have taken the other title.

The 20 years before that had led to an incredible 19 county titles for the Rangers with the 2009 success of Pearse Og the only dent in their armour.

Higgins said that a more competitive championship can only be good for the county.

“It’s definitely a good thing to see different winners coming up each year and not just having one winner,” he said. “It can only be good for the competition.”

Whatever happens in the coming years, Maghery have certainly made their mark on Armagh football.

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