BY DÁIRE BONNAR
ST Eunan’s hurlers are just 60 minutes away from winning their first Ulster title as they go into the Junior provincial decider this weekend.
It’s a huge game for the club and Conor O’Grady, who captained the Letterkenny men to the Munster Cup in 2021, is under no illusions of the task at hand.
The Moville Community College teacher is just 26 but has been around the block, having played for the senior side for almost a decade now.
But no game has come as big as this one for him and he’s determined to bring the provincial title back to the Cathedral Town.
“It’s massive, we’ve never got here in the club’s history before so it’s a real achievement and hopefully we can go those few steps further.
“The big one for us this year is that we’ve got into Ulster twice before and we’ve never got past the first round, we kept having that hiccup.
“Two years ago we lost to Craobh Rua and they ended up winning it so we had a bee in our bonnet to get out and get this far and prove that we are at this level.
“Setanta have won this twice now in the last few years and we wanted to prove we are of the calibre of them.
“We know we are at that but on county final day we didn’t perform, the pressure is kind of off in Ulster and in my eyes we’re not overthinking it because we don’t know Castleblayney inside out.”
St Eunan’s progressed to the final after a tense penalty victory over Swatragh in Dungannon last Saturday having drawn 0-21 apiece after extra-time.
After St Eunan’s took a four point lead in at half-time, the Derry side hit back and were on top for a lot of the second half.
But the Letterkenny side, after losing Cormac Finn to a red card, hit an added time point from a Cathal O’Brien free to take the game to extra-time and Dáire O’Maoileidigh did the same in the 82nd minute to force the shootout.
O’Grady missed and St Eunan’s went 3-1 down, but they wouldn’t miss again and Cian Hennessy made two saves as O’Brien scored the winner in sudden death.
“We were lucky in the end up to be honest, when we went the man down we done well to get it to extra-time then we went a point down late on in extra-time.
“I turned to Kevin Kealy and said ‘this is surreal’. To be in a penalty shoot-out, I’ve never experienced it and just how the game could just end with it and someone’s misfortune would see the other go through in that way.
“I was very lucky, I missed mine and I was lucky the other centre back done me the favour, the nerves must have got to him.
“The first 15 minutes they had an awful lot of wides and I thought it was going to be our day, we weren’t missing much and they had a right few wides but it was a momentum game.
“Even when you scored or missed you knew the next possession was so key. They didn’t get going fully, I think we got lucky in one sense.”
After 12 weeks off since the Donegal final when they lost by 4-13 to 0-14 to Setanta, which O’Grady admits hurt the side, they flew out the blocks and took an emphatic 4-24 to 0-9 win over Tyrone Champions Omagh St Enda’s in the quarter-final in O’Donnell Park.
And after 80 minutes on a heavy pitch in Dungannon, they never looked out of gas as they finished the game strongly with the likes of Conor McVeigh, Calvin Aidoo and Russell Forde playing important parts off the bench.
And O’Grady reiterated the importance of the strength in depth that the Black and Amber have in their side as it helped them force a shootout.
“The Setanta game took a lot out of us, we thought we could have had them this year but the length of time away nearly helped us in one aspect so that we could take two or three weeks off and recharge the batteries then go fully at it again.
“In fairness to Kevin (Kelly) and Paddy (Flood), we wouldn’t have done much running throughout the year but in that 12 weeks off we were running three nights in our trainings.
“Then the footballers like Kevin Kealy, (Seán) McVeigh and Brian MacIntyre just came back in with plenty in their legs after the season they had.
“It made a big difference, then the boys that did come on, even Calvin (Aidoo) has been plugging along all year and he didn’t get a right run in the championship, but to bring him on in the last ten of normal time to nearly snatch the winner, but our bench is strong and that’s a credit to Kevin and Paddy who have put an emphasis in strength in numbers.
“It’s great to get into the final on a performance like that. I think one of our first county finals we had a great semi-final and we thought we were on fire then we went into the final and we weren’t at it.
“So in a semi-final it’s great to have such a good game and get through it with a hard fought win that you’re up for it and the final is fixed for the same pitch which is tight and smaller and it’s good to get on the field.
“In saying that, the Omagh game was brilliant too after 12 weeks off because between football and men working in Dublin we hadn’t had our team fully there until that game, it was a good build up to it that we weren’t just straight into a game like Swatragh.”
Their opponents in the final are Monaghan’s most successful hurling team, Castleblayney.
They lost their county final this year to Inniskeen Grattans in their bid for a seventh county title in-a-row, but they are Ulster’s most successful Junior Hurling side, winning the provincial title three times, most recently in 2018 when they also made the All-Ireland final.
Of the Monaghan side that won the Lory Meagher Cup this year, ten players who featured in the final line out for the finalists so it is expected to be a tough test.
“Castleblayney are a great outfit, they weren’t far off winning the All-Ireland a few years ago and I’d expect us to be going in as underdogs.
“They beat the Antrim side (Naomh Brid) by three points but to come in after a big win in the semi-final they will fancy themselves after putting big numbers up.
“I’m sure the boys are having a look at them, myself I wouldn’t read too much into performances because you can always get a video of a game and say what’s bad or good but if you looked at us against Setanta, it’s a different team.
“A few years ago I was big into analysis and then going into the game I would be nearly tired in overthinking on it so it’s just focus on my own game is the main one.”