The rise of Derry’s top two – the Glen and Sleacht Néill story

Sunday in a second successive meeting of Glen and Sleacht Néill in the Derry football showpiece. Michael McMullan looks at the development of both teams

A CHRISTMAS spent at St Paul’s in Belfast is a sign of progress at club underage level. At the foot of Hannahstown Hill, it’s the mecca of minor club football.

After conquering their county, it gives players the chance to pump their chest out at the best Ulster has to offer.

Until they walked tall at Celtic Park last autumn, as senior champions, Glen’s four magical minor years defined them.

It wasn’t always that way. Before their golden underage generation, success was sporadic.

“There is a misconception that we have a brilliant underage setup and we have always challenged at underage – we haven’t,” said Fergal P McCusker, who played on the 1987 minor winning team and was involved in their recent revival.

Three years earlier came an u-14 and u16 double. After a 1994 Féile win and two minor final defeats later in the decade – to neighbours Sleacht Néill – it was a diet of B football that barely raised an eye.

Underage management posts were left to the heel of a club AGM when hunger pangs dominated over any enthusiasm.

“We weren’t challenging clubs regularly at the time,” McCusker said of the club’s history. “Like every club, there are peaks and troughs and maybe we took our eye off the ball.”

It was time for change and to harness the potential. Increasing chimney pots in the catchment area is one thing, but a group of likeminded individuals around a table started the ball rolling.

“The people that got involved at that time had the foresight to realise that something had to change,” McCusker recalls.

Underage coach recruitment was elevated to a dedicated youth AGM being a fixture on the calendar. Coaches were put in place with either a football background or wanting to up skill themselves to be part of the new future. The coach to player ratio was always kept in mind.

“We were maybe unique,” McCusker said. “There were very few clubs that had u-14, u-16 and minor managers that don’t have children involved in any of those these teams.”

All-Ireland winning manager Pat O’Shea delivered a workshop, with Dessie Ryan sharing the same golden nuggets of tackling advice Kieran McGeeney and the McNulty brothers drove to Ballyronan to soak up.

“We tried to have consistency throughout all the teams, with a style of play and a style of football that could work for us and work right through to senior level…that was the catalyst,” McCusker explains.

“That coincided nicely with a crop of players coming through that were exceptional, so it was a bit of a perfect storm.”

The breakthrough came with a Féile final win over Sleacht Néill in 2008 and despite the unprecedented success that followed, McCusker insists that Glen’s early planning process wasn’t centred on youth silverware. The John McLaughlin Cup would always the biggest prize.

In an interview after last year’s county final, he beamed how Glen entered “the club” of senior championship winners and he could proudly hold a conversation with any likeminded Gael across the globe.

MAJOR MINOR…Glen’s winning minor team of 2011

“All those minor championships and success at underage…they don’t really matter a jot,” he stresses. “It is nice to win them, but the barometer for any club is your senior team.”

The measuring stick is getting players to senior level, keeping everyone involved in the club and getting a fair shot at it.

“Glen could’ve won six minor championships in a row in Ulster and if we hadn’t got those players coming through to senior, it would’ve worthless,” he said.

The Wattys have embraced the u-19 grade. It works for them and they field four teams at adult level with the motivation to bring everyone along. Below the reserve team are two recreational teams. One it littered with veterans looking to mix football with craic, the other with players coming out of underage hoping to move up the ladder.

For all Glen’s silverware and progress, their road had its share of bumps. After their senior team’s relegation to intermediate football, defeats to Castledawson and Foreglen prevented them from bouncing back with championship silverware.

McCusker relates to the latter years of his playing career and the constant scrap for league points to maintain their senior status.

“It was probably the best thing that ever happened us,” he said of the club’s relegation in 2011.

“We were able to get players in, the pressure was off and you were winning more matches than you were losing and you were able to try things.

“Players got their confidence back and if you are good enough you’ll go up and you go from there.”

On the underage teams McCusker managed, Stevie O’Hara, Conor Glass and Cathal Mulholland were some the players under his watch. He came up against Cormac O’Doherty, Shane McGuigan and Keelan Feeney who face them from the maroon corner this weekend.

The rivalry was both intense and proper, but McCusker felt both sets of players brought the best out in each other.

“There would be respect for Sleacht Néill in what they have done and how they have conducted themselves,” he said. “Both clubs are run in the right way.

“We haven’t achieved the level of success Sleacht Néill have achieved at senior level. It was fantastic to get the monkey off the back and get one championship, so we will have to see how it goes.”

Derry’s championship summer saw Glen and Sleacht Néill players totally buy into the Rory Gallagher “commit to each other” mantra, with the squad living in each other’s pockets for virtually entire weekends at a time.

Many of the same faces stood shoulder to shoulder on Derry minor teams, something that began with Padraig Cassidy, Paul McNeill and Brendan Rogers playing with a Glen core in Glenview Primary School.

As it moved on to St Patrick’s Maghera, maroon, green and gold was swapped for the blue, white and black.”

“There has been a brilliant group of cubs that have come though both clubs,” said Maghera Head of Sport Paul Hughes of the Glen and Sleacht Néill players.

When Connor Carville spoke at the homecoming assembly of the 2013 MacRory and Hogan Cup winning team, he referenced the “Club St Patrick’s” mantra.

“They had a tremendous loyalty to each other in school despite the rivalry between themselves at club level,” Hughes continued.

“When they pulled on that St Patrick’s jersey they wanted that buzz. They have gone and helped recreate it in their own clubs at senior level.”

Hughes has always championed the input of clubs to school success. They shape the player and the school apply the polish as they knit them into a team.

POCKET ROCKET…Keelan Feeney in action for St Patrick’s Maghera in the 2016 Hogan Cup final

“The challenges reflect what the Glen boys found in their minor successes and the Sleacht Néill found going into senior.”

“When you get into that competitive situation with good players, you are testing yourself against good players that’s when you see them developing.”

He remembers a D’Alton Cup game in the freezing cold with the gale playing havoc with any attempt to play free flowing football.

“Their willingness to compete was exemplary…we can’t put that into them,” said Hughes of a spirit instilled by clubs at a young age.

When Maghera were celebrating the 2013 MacRory Cup success, the management commissioned a highlights video to the tune of “Let her go” by Passenger.

The initial clips were of motionless and broken Conor Convery sitting on the pitch at the end of the 2012 final defeat. Cormac O’Doherty is picked off the turf and Ryan Dougan was being consoled by his mother Karen.

Twelve months later, Carville and O’Hara found the net, with Convery and Gerald Bradley kicking points as they righted the wrongs of 2012 on the way to Hogan Cup glory.

The 2014 and 2016 winning teams were littered with Glen and Sleacht Néill players with Ethan Doherty the captain of the 2020 side that shared the title.

Hughes isn’t surprised with the impact they’ve made at club level, passing on “the buzz” of preparing for big games.

“I think it is a tribute to them,” he said. “They have seen the older players in their clubs and bought into it…then look at the panel you have.”

Sleacht Néill’s pathway to becoming three-time Ulster senior football champions had a 1995 hurling Féile success at its origin.

A weekend living in each other’s pockets in Limerick strengthened an already growing bond. The same year, their u-14 football team walked the Grade A path for the first time.

Earlier that year, Larry Bradley remembers how victory over a fancied Ballinderry was greeted with elation, with the entire squad granted free admission to the club’s much famed Friday night teenage disco.

There was no underage football silverware, but it didn’t matter to club stalwart Willie Hampson. He saw enough football down the years to know there was a promising batch of players coming along.

“I always thought you should play above your station and are better testing the water to see how it goes,” said Hampson, who was part of Derry’s 1989 minor All-Ireland winning management team under John Joe Kearney.

Magherafelt needed a late free from Barry Gillis to take them to an u-16 ‘A’ semi-final replay in 1996 which the Emmet’s won on their way to a chastening final defeat to Ballinderry. The same year, Kearney and Kevin Kelly managed the club’s minors to league glory, the first ever Grade ‘A’ title.

Two years later, with Dermot McNicholl on board as coach, the Emmet’s found themselves seven points down to Ballinderry in the minor championship opener with just six minutes.

“We had a good strong team, not with a massive panel,” Hampson said of the 1998 group. “We had about 21 or 22 players but they were all ball players. We turned it around to win and went on to beat Glen in the final.”

Just like Glen, the trips to St Paul’s took their players to another level in their quest to build a senior team.

After wins over Scotstown and Enniskillen, Sleacht Néill reached the final against an Ardboe team with Gavin Devlin, brothers Tommy and Brian McGuigan in their ranks.

In mucky conditions and after conceding an early own goal, Sleacht Néill found a way back into the game with Man of the Match Kevin O’Neill forcing home a goal and Patrick Bradley kicking four points.

Hampson recalls how moving the versatile Barry McGuigan back to curb Tommy McGuigan as another key factor.

Sleacht Néill retained their Derry title and were pitted against a Mayobridge side with five of Down’s 1999 All-Ireland winning side on board including Benny Coulter and Ronan Sexton, with Michael Walsh struggling with injury.

The brake system on the legendary retro Sleacht Néill bus caught fire heading into Belfast and a fleet of taxis ferried them in time for the delayed throw-in.

After a comfortable victory they saw off Pearse Óg in the semi-final before going down to Cavan Gaels in the final.

“It was the first time I saw them a bit tired,” Hampson admits. “They’d played a lot of football, but that’s no disgrace…it was a fair good Cavan Gaels team.”

The following year they completed three-in-a-row by in Derry. A goal from a 15-year old Patsy Bradley – with the last kick – knocked out Ballinderry in the semi-final before seeing off Bellaghy in the decider.

Pearse Óg ended their Ulster hopes in the semi-final, but by the time John Brennan arrived as senior manager in 2004, 18 of their winning minor teams were coming into an already seasoned panel.

Jim Kelly and Paul Bradley were their ace attackers, with twins Francis and Fergal McEldowney also making the breakthrough. And at midfield Patsy Bradley was joined by Shane Kelly in the core of a team that lasted for the next decade.

FIRST TIME…The Sleacht Néill squad before their 2004 Ulster Club replay defeat in Crossmaglen, their first season in the competition

After winning a first Derry senior title in 2004, Crossmaglen ended Sleacht Néill’s Ulster hopes after a replay, which was followed by nine years of gut-wrenching defeats.

Hampson was back in charge at minor level in 2007 with a group that included Chrissy McKaigue, Sean ‘Tad’ Cassidy and goalkeeper Antóin McMullan, with Christopher Bradley on the bench.

They had Kilrea on the brink of a first ever Derry championship defeat. Against all odds they found themselves in command of the final. Hampson still laments Ciaran McKaigue’s goal ruled out – for a questionable square ball – that would’ve put them 11 points up.

Kilrea came back and went on to win the Ulster title, but the Emmet’s came back with another burst with a generation that hung to the coattails of Glen’s dominant underage machine.

“I always had a very good thing with Enda Gormley and Rooster (Fergal P McCusker),” Hampson said, referring to Glen and Sleacht Néill being at the business ends of competition, with the Wattys as the top dogs.

“There was never a word out of place. We shook hands when it was over, no matter who won and that’s the way it should be. They were more mates than people think. You want to win and that’s the way it is, the rivalry is there.”

Sleacht Néill mustered a Féile, u-14, u-16 and minor titles but there was enough for Mickey Moran to follow in John Brennan’s footsteps by calling up a raft of players that would freshen up the club’s senior hand.

“Mickey always looked at who he thought could do a job for him, if someone was showing well at underage he’d give him a chance,” Hampson said.

He also is full of praise for how Ruairi Ó Mianáin has blossomed in his breakthrough senior season and backs other from the u-19 winning group to follow in within a few years.

In a new development this season, Chrissy McKaigue made a career change and has taken over as Sleacht Néill’s dedicated GPO to oversee the club’s coaching and general vision for the future.

“I am glad to see that,” Hampson said. “Chrissy McKaigue is the most dedicated man I have ever seen. He is some role model to have about the place.

He’s there to get things organised and get a system of what way you’d want every age group to play to get up to senior level.”

With both clubs continuing to better their hand, Sunday’s wrestle for supremacy at the top won’t be the last.

The Christmas seasons in St Paul’s build a solid footing. Derry’s big two are the perfect example.

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