Barry McConville is in his 23rd year of senior football with Cullyhanna as they aim to book an Ulster final place. He chatted to Michael McMullan about his career…
YOU don’t need to be chatting to Barry McConville long before you realise why he’s in the throes of a 23rd season of senior football.
There is an excitement in his voice. He recites games from the past like it was yesterday. There is no better feeling than winning with his teammates.
A second Intermediate Championship medal, 15 years after his first, tells you how the word ‘longevity’ sums up Barry McConville, Cullyhanna’s 2008 winning vice-captain.
This weekend, he’ll be back in the firing line as Liatroim form the barrier between the Armagh men and an Ulster final spot.
They didn’t push on enough in 2008. The Greenlough team that pipped them in Ulster were a late goal chance away from edging Trillick in the final.
In the years between, Cullyhanna should’ve had at least one senior title. McConville still feels they were the best side in Armagh in 2016.
Neither team pulled up many trees in the final, but Ciaran Higgins was the difference with Maghery’s goal.
Cullyhanna are a senior team playing intermediate football until the bubble burst last year. A season without county trio Aidan Nugent, Ross McQuillan and Jason Duffy was exacerbated by four players away on their travels and a selection of injuries.
They took it on the chin and came back with a burst. The stiff learning curve last season did the young bucks no harm. When they had a fuller hand this season, Cullyhanna were the stronger for it.
Will it bring an Ulster final berth? Sunday afternoon will answer that question.
Is 2023 Barry McConville’s last dance? That’s a decision for another day. Listening to his grá for the game, the tone with which he lays his words says it’s not.
Pre-season is every player’s worst nightmare and if Cullyhanna can take another championship step this weekend, the 2024 campaign is already another week closer.
“I’ll see what happens, it is coming sooner than it’s not,” McConville offers with a laugh about retirement. “Caolan Reavey reckons I was made in a lab, he can’t understand how I am still playing.”
Reavey is the pint sized roving number 10 that pops up here, there and everywhere in Cullyhanna’s game-plan. Sitting side by side in the dressing room, Reavey and McConville represent the young and old combination that has helped the bounce back. For now, it’s about Liatroim and how Cullyhanna can put their best foot forward.
Barry McConville first visited the senior football stable in his final year of minor.
The county minor call never came and the u-21 invite was popped in his direction a year too late for the Orchard County’s All-Ireland winning crusade of 2004, but he has just kept trucking away.
Football is in the genes in a fanatical area like south Armagh. Growing up, that’s all there was.
Keady offered hurling for anyone interested. Soccer teams in nearby Crossmaglen and Camlough offered a different outlet but few made the move. For McConville, it was always Gaelic football.
“There was nothing else, you came home from school and it was football, football, football, so you’d be outside from morning to dark,” he remembers of the early days.
His late father Brendan was taken suddenly and far too soon by an underlying heart problem at the age of 60 when Barry, his youngest son, was only 26.
“You have to get on with it,” said Barry of how he misses his father.
Of Cullyhanna’s five intermediate titles, his father holds medals from the first three and Barry has played on the 2008 and 2023 winning teams.
“I remember my three brothers (Mark, Gary and Neil) playing in a minor final against Clan na Gael, that’s my first real memory of games,” said Barry of his brothers 15, 16 and 17 years older than him.
All four played senior football together in Barry’s earlier years. On one occasion, a challenge game with Roche Emmet’s, they were all on the field at the same time.
“Unfortunately there wasn’t a picture taken but I would’ve played senior football with all of them,” Barry said with the same clarity he spoke across a leisurely Friday morning chat.
School took him to nearby St Joseph’s, Crossmaglen. Club underage brought a generous helping of success.
“We were okay and were competing,” McConville sums up.
Every two years they’d be challenging. A strong season when everyone was the right age was followed by a building year for the next title challenge.
“You were always winning something but the boys coming through after us all had success at every level,” he said of the u-21 winning teams that backbone the current senior crop.
Barry’s memories of underage are both concise and simplistic. Winning trophies and games with his teammates, there is nothing better.
“Nothing beats that, that is massive especially as it keeps boys in heed (interested),” he adds.
“At u-14, we won the Féile and the championship and it was the same at u-16, league and championship.”
An all-county Féile final defeat ended their All-Ireland hopes. A few years earlier, a team with Mal Mackin on board lost an All-Ireland Féile final on penalties.
Mackin is like McConville. If the body is able, football is always high up the list.
As they wrestled with Pomeroy in the recent Ulster quarter-final, Mackin – listed as number 30 in the squad – pranced uneasily up and down in the substitutes’ area in the Omagh stand.
“Mal has made a resurgence lately,” McConville said of their 2008 winning captain.
He could still do a job as an emergency ‘keeper or if a physical presence needed stationed in the square at the other end in search of a game-saving late goal. You can’t buy that type of experience.
A bad knee injury needed an operation Mackin didn’t opt for. He decided to get stuck into his own rehab programme to build up the muscles around the knee.
“He togged back out and trained with us,” McConville added. “The knee was giving him a bit of bother, so he rehabbed it again.
“He has been training with us the last few months and is in helping with the management as well.”
With the 2007 league title in the bag, Cullyhanna’s chances of a double were bubbling along nicely until Whitecross delivered the sucker punch in the form of a winning semi-final goal, with the last kick.
“They went on to win it (the championship)…that’s how close we were,” McConville said. Those with a winning mentality never forget the ones they lose.
Now promoted to the senior league, Cullyhanna were “strong favourites” to lift the Intermediate Championship the following season.
And they did it the “handy” way. After an early scare from Crossmaglen’s second string, they brushed Madden and Sarsfields aside.
“We beat Culloville in the final and they were in the senior league as well.” McConville added.
“The Cross game was tight and it shouldn’t have been,” he said of victory over a side that had players such as Jamie Clarke, Danny O’Callaghan, Franny Hanratty, Kyle Brennan and Stephen Finnegan, who’d later win senior titles.
After beating Culloville in the final, to right the wrongs of 2007, Mal Mackin delivered a passionate captain’s speech. The thanks were given before an emotional tribute after their greatest hour.
“I have no doubt ‘Coosy’ was looking down on us today…and that’s for you ‘Coosy’,” Mackin said with conviction as he thrusted the cup back into the Armagh sky.
Brendan McCooey had just broken out of the minor grade and was destined for a stint in the Cullyhanna senior team until he sadly died in a tragic accident on holidays the previous year.
“He was a good friend of ours,” McConville said of a former teammate who could have been running out with the squad on Sunday in Castleblayney.
“It was a tragedy, he was a very popular fella and friends with everybody. At that time we were a young team and in around the one age, in our 20s, and it was a massive thing.”
The experience in the Cullyhanna team at the time came from Shane McKeever, one of their older players, and the O’Hare brothers – Liam and Ciaran.
The latter, now living in Derry, went on to help Magilligan to the 2016 junior title in the Oakleaf County where had a stint as player manager.
Looking back at 2008, McConville speaks of regret at not pushing on in Ulster.
They went in “green” and weren’t ready, even though they should’ve been.
“We were strong, we should’ve been putting out a better hand and if we had got over that round (Greenlough in Crossmaglen) we probably would’ve got to the final against Trillick,” he offers.
After the celebrations following their Armagh success this year, McConville recalls Kieran Hoey’s words. They needed to push on more this year.
Hoey, another survivor from 2008, has had his injury problems but has made a vital input this season. Paudie Mackin has medals from both seasons. Current forward Tony Donnelly came on as a sub in the 2008 win over Culloville.
“We said this year that we would really try to do something in Ulster,” added McConville, the only player to start both finals.
Until this season, Cullyhanna’s gap between both intermediate successes has been spent in senior football.
Three senior leagues back up their status as a team always competing at championship level.
“We definitely should have at least one senior championship,” McConville said.
“In ’16, we were probably the best team in Armagh at the time and played poorly in the final.
“Maghery weren’t great either but they scored a goal and that was the difference, it was the winning of the game.”
It came three years after their first final defeat, at the hands of local rivals Crossmaglen.
“Cross were far stronger than us,” he admits “We fought relegation that year but had a good championship run but they were far superior, old fashioned and knew how to win.”
There is a strong core running through the current Cullyhanna side. Aside from the three players in Kieran McGeeney’s Armagh plans, the four u-21 winning teams in five years, 2011 to 2015, have served them well. For 20 years, there have been players coming into the senior ranks both well coached and managed.
“Then you can pick out who is going to come on,” McConville said of the progress to senior.
Being well-schooled at underage helps. Having players with the interest to push on is also half the battle of harvesting the perfect crop.
“They wanted to play football, they wanted to win and be successful,” he added.
“It came from the senior team doing well and competing. Also, Armagh were doing well over the years and seeing success, that breeds success.”
As someone having played across three decades, McConville is well placed to know the journey underage players will try to make.
With their depleted squad last year, young bucks had to step into the fast lane well before their time. In his book, they deserve immense credit.
“We had young lads asked to do a job at senior level and they weren’t fit to but they battled and it wasn’t until the second last game of the season that we got relegated,” he said.
Having to fend without the county players for so long doesn’t sit well with McConville. Players become county players because of what they offer at club level first. It’s a debate for another day and Cullyhanna had to move on.
This year, Kieran McCooey and Tony Donnelly returned from their travels. They got full seasons from Sean Connell and Mickey Murray. Kieran Hoey’s return from injury was another help. That’s on top of having four boys still in Australia. If it was only the county players they were missing last year, relegation would never have raised its head.
“We sat down and asked ourselves what we wanted to do and we have worked hard,” McConville said of their 2023 pre-season pact to bounce back.
First it was back to basics. There was the need to start winning games at home again, roll up the sleeves and work. After that, much of everything else would row in behind their system of play.
The night of their win over Pomeroy marked 12 months of graft. They trained like dogs. Getting out of intermediate was a must.
“We put ourselves down as a senior club that had a bit of a slip up and are getting back,” he added.
“The boys coming back in, they are senior footballers and were a massive help.
“The younger boys who are there, we have a panel of 31 or 32 players and every single one of them have worked their asses off.
“Fair play to them, they kept us together. It’s those boys who should be getting the plaudits.
“They will realise in a few years what this has done for them. Some of those young fellas never won anything. It was massive for them.”
A chip on the shoulder from being relegated helped. McConville agrees on hunger being a magic sauce and also hailed the management team.
Stephen Reel stayed on board. Ciaran McKeever has never been far away since hanging up the boots.
“Francie Nugent came in,” McConville added. “Shane McKeever came in as a forwards coach, he’d be a club legend and that helped.”
Sean Nugent and Mal Mackin from the 2008 winning team are also involved, all former players.
“We are very lucky because for years we had nobody in from the club,” said McConville, who also pointed to the work of Farney man Mick O’Dowd, among their outside managers, and his help in bringing league glory and progress to senior finals.
“It is hard to beat having success when everyone is from your own club. Nothing beats winning with your teammates,” McConville stressed.
There is always the joy in bringing success to the community who he doesn’t blame for “cursing” them in recent seasons.
“It’s for them, it’s for the management,” he added. “They have put in three, four or five years with us and they’d keep telling us we were good enough and finally we got success.”
The celebrations were welcome. Players had to party and bask in the glory of their hard earned success. It had to be done, but, by the Wednesday, the boots were back on and the dirty diesel was gone from the system. By Friday’s session the proper work began ahead of their win over Pomeroy.
“I honestly thought I was never going to win another championship and I thought I would’ve had a senior one by this stage,” McConville said of the 15-year wait from 2008.
“A championship is a championship and to win another one with your club is class.”
Cullyhanna knew what Pomeroy had to offer but the names of key men Kieran McGeary and Frank Burns were rarely mentioned in the build-up.
The focus was their own house. If they kept the back door closed, they’d enough about them up front to take them through and that’s how it materialised.
Pomeroy didn’t get the goal chance they needed and it was left to Aidan Nugent to kick the winner in stoppage time.
McConville knows enough about this weekend’s opponents Liatroim to realise they’ve a tough task ahead,
“We played them in a challenge game earlier in the season but you can’t read into that, both teams missing players,” he added.
“They will not be easy beat and are not in the semi-final for nothing. They are a big enough team and well set up. We will worry about ourselves and take it from there.”
On Sunday, Caolan Reavey and Barry McConville will again sit side by side in the dressing room. Two generations with the same goal.
This time it will be in Castleblayney with an Ulster final berth up for grabs.