Four Masters – Mastering the art of winning

By Michael McMullan

WHEN the Abbey players run out onto the St Tiernach’s Park sod on Saturday, it will be a big deal.

And it is. It’s the final leg of a magical journey as they aim to follow in the footsteps of St Eunan’s Letterkenny and De Le Salle Ballyshannon as All-Ireland B winners from Donegal with their back-to-back wins in 1979 and 1980.

For the 19 Four Masters players on the squad of 26, they’ll be trotting a path well-navigated after a decorated underage adventure that reached the pinnacle with annexing the Ulster minor title on New Year’s Day at St Paul’s.

Between club and school, they found the balance between both teams. Each helped the other as the players experienced the challenges from across Ulster.

It could well have been back-to-back minor titles only for Dungiven coming with a bang to win the final the previous year.

They licked their wounds and after emerging from Donegal they righted the wrong.

At schools level, they joined forces with players from the neighbouring Naomh Bríd and St Naul’s clubs to put their best foot forward in the MacLarnon Cup.

After their wave of momentum carried them towards Ulster glory, they are now one step from an All-Ireland, a prize everyone craves.

Club Chairman Pauric Harvey, manager of the minor team nipped by Dungiven, is well placed to lift the lid on the buzz in Donegal Town as Abbey tiptoe towards the starting line once again.

“It is much the same,” he said. “There is a great buzz and the town has been decorated in red and white when it was usually blue and white for us.”

There are good luck messages. On Wednesday night, local broadcaster Charlie Collins hosted a pre-final chat night that included Peadar Mogan, brother of current Abbey player Oisin, as well as other former pupils including Barry Monaghan, Gavin Mulreaney, Matt Gallagher and Joyce McMullin.

All the effort at underage is playing off. Harvey hails the level of support the parents have given to both club and school games. There were buses booked for their big days in Belfast.

“They are great and go to all the games, from u-10 and all the way through,” said Harvey. “The buzz with the school run has been great and similar to the club buzz.”

There are a few ingredients to their success. Harvey, modestly, mentions the word luck. A golden crop at the one time and they’ve helped shape them.

In the school, Gaoth Dobhair man Stuart McFadden and Donegal forward Jamie Brennan have polished the gems the local clubs dropped at their door. They’ve added their own slant and kept them believing.

“We are very lucky to have five primary schools in our area who all participate in Gaelic Football and really push it,” Harvey said about the structures in the area.

They provide coaching and games. It feeds into the Four Masters underage that delivered numerous titles and is now fielding two teams at all age groups to ensure there is football for everyone.

“That is to keep them playing,” Harvey said, who was full of praise for the effort of the club coaches.

“We found it very beneficial by the time they got to minor with the football they’ve played. and we have got a lot of late developers.”

With the schools offering GAA to both boys and girls – as well as many other sports – the clubs benefit. And, in turn, it has been the catalyst for Abbey’s advance to Saturday’s decider in Clones.

“They (Abbey) are developing a pitch,” Harvey adds. “For now, they train in Four Masters, St Naul’s or Naomh Bríd and play their games there as well.”

He can only speak from his experience in Four Masters, but the players had added desire to their talent.

It’s rare to visit Tír Conaill Park and not see one of them in the gym or out on the pitch honing their skills.

“They just love going to play football, they put in the time and the extra work that is unseen,” he said. “We are lucky in the club that they have come together and we are hoping they will all stick together.

It has been pushed on a step further by their campaign with Abbey. The big picture, like their minor success, is moving up to senior and becoming a team capable of challenging for the Dr Maguire Cup Naomh Conaill have a monopoly on.

For now, it’s all about Clones and getting their hands on another piece of silverware. That’s where the advantages of the Four Masters’ minor days stand out. The games in front of crowds, the noise and days when they’ve needed grit like coming from eight down to oust favourites Magherafelt.

“They have been in other games where there has been a different type of football,” Harvey added.

“In the Ulster competition, it was different and it was more physical. They get punished quicker when they make mistakes and it is a different environment.”

What would an All-Ireland title do for the school and the area? An obvious question prompts an obvious answer.

“It would be unbelievable,” Harvey instantly sums up. “Abbey have had some great teams and some great players down the years.

“It would be a brilliant achievement for the school and it is the highest leve they’ve ever played at. It would be a great achievement for all the clubs locally.”

They’ll need a bit of luck on the way. All winning teams do. But they make their own and Abbey will hope to carry on the tradition of standing in the Diamond with the silver. Saturday will tell the tale.

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