Donegal hurling team Setanta are a week away from their first-ever appearance in an Ulster Intermediate final. Shaun Casey writes…
SETANTA have reached every Donegal Senior Hurling Championship final for the past seven consecutive seasons, winning five including a two-in-a-row this year, but of late they are stepping up to competing, and winning, at provincial level.
Back-to-back Ulster Junior final heartaches in 2007 and 2008 were put to bed in 2017 when the Tir Chonaill men finally scaled the provincial summit with a cracking three-point win over Derry outfit Na Magha.
Last season was a bit more comfortable as they recaptured the Ulster Junior crown for the second time, seeing off Shane O’Neill’s of Antrim with ten points to spare before losing to London’s Kilburn Gaels in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Setanta have made the step up to intermediate level in 2023 and last weekend they qualified for their first ever Ulster decider at this grade, a competition that no Donegal team has ever won.
Manager Gary McGettigan took a step back at the end of last season, although he’s still heavily involved, leaving the Ulster Junior champions without a manager. However, Niall Cleary and Kevin Campbell, both still playing, decided to take the plunge.
“It’s more coaching than managing I suppose,” said wing-back Cleary. “Gary McGettigan, who was over the team the last few years, agreed to stay on in a reduced capacity, but Gary never misses a session, so we’re blessed to have him.
“Gary wanted to take a step back and we had Ollie Bellew from Antrim, who was taking a step back as well, so basically the club came to me and Kevy and asked us to manage the team between the two of us.
“We put our heads together, we met a few times at the start of the year, and we figured out how best to work it. We spoke to the players, and we just went ahead with it from there.
“It’s a challenge trying to balance the two, especially at training when you’re trying to drive the thing on but you’re still trying to train yourself as well.
“Obviously match-day decisions are tricky and Gary does the bulk of the decision making on match day. We have a chat maybe at half time to assess how things are going.
“It seems to be working okay at the minute. Me and Kevy would sit down at the start of the week, we travel to training together anyway. We plan what we want to do for the week, and we’ll be there an hour before training, and we’ll set the whole thing up.”
“Niall and Kevy took it over this year,” explains club captain and fellow defender Mark Callaghan. “Gary was the manager the last few years and he’s still on the sideline, but he wanted to take a step back from the management role.
“He does his part, and he makes all the calls on the line for the two boys. Niall and Kevin are the managers but the three of them would have an equal say on everything.
“They’ve been good all year and I’ve played with those boys for long enough before they were the managers, so we know each other fairly well and they’re doing a good job at the minute.
“There were a couple of big calls and hard calls to make, a few of the lads maybe felt hard done by in big games by not getting a start or whatever. So it’s a tough job for any manager but they seem to be coping with it well and credit to them.”
From the outside looking in, Setanta are thriving but as Cleary describes, their small squad of playing personnel can leave things difficult for training.
“We’re working with a panel of 20 at the moment,” added the Setanta boss.
“We would have three lads in college and another two working away from home and then you have a couple of injuries and niggles so we might only have 13 or 14 boys training mid-week.
“We’d have everybody then on a Friday and a Sunday, but the quality and the standard of training has been really high anyway.
“The players take a lot of credit for that because when we are trying to train ourselves as well, we can’t be driving the thing on.
“But there’s a lot of experience in the side and a lot of people there to take leadership and drive the sessions on.”
They may be small in numbers, but Setanta are big on quality, which has helped to take the step up in class in their stride.
“It’s a great team and there’s a big togetherness there and we like to pride ourselves on being a unit and looking after each other,” added Callaghan. “We’d class every one of us as friends and it’s always good craic at training which makes boys want to turn up. We do have a relatively small panel but everybody on it is a good player, and you could nearly play them anywhere.
“I’d say that’s better than a big panel of lesser players. That’s just the numbers we have but we work with what we’ve got and what we’ve got is quality.”
Donegal have an abysmal record at Intermediate level in Ulster and Setanta have the chance in two weeks’ time to create another slice of history. The first ever Tir Chonaill club to win silverware at this level have an opportunity to win back-to-back provincial crowns.
“There was a big jump in standard obviously,” added Callaghan on the difference in junior and intermediate. “But we find that we’re suited to Intermediate. We’re not there just to make up the numbers, we’re a good side and we believe we belong at that level.
“We bowed out of the All-Ireland series (last year), we were disappointed in our performance against Kilburn Gaels, but we said that day that intermediate was in us, so we took it from there.
“We said from the very start of the season and right through the county (championship) that we’re definitely aiming for an Intermediate final. Last year was a massive one for the club. It’s the first Donegal side to nearly compete at Intermediate level, never mind reach a final.
“There’s never been a Donegal side to win a game at Intermediate level, so we got over that hurdle against Ballinascreen which was a big task in itself.”
Seeing off Middletown in the semi-final last Saturday evening surprised a few and Lady Luck was certainly on their side, but Setanta make their own luck with hard work and determination.
“We were big underdogs and I’d say most of Ulster had us written off against Ballinascreen in the first round and we proved that day that we could compete with the best of teams at intermediate level,” continued the Setanta skipper.
“The same with Middletown, they’re a very good team and very seasoned team and they’re well coached so it was a good win for us. We came into the game as underdogs and we’re happy with that.
“Both sides had their chances of winning it. Middletown were very unlucky, big Ryan Gaffney, he’s been a stalwart for Middletown, he’ll be disappointed with missing the penalty and he had the last puck from a free.
“The weather conditions probably went against him too. It was a good way to win it (by one point), but it was probably a bad way to lose it as well for Middletown, in fairness.”
The step up to intermediate hurling has no doubt been a challenging one, but manager Cleary believes the standard that his side train at has helped to ease that transition.
“It definitely was a big step up and you can see that in the first 10 or 15 minutes of both games that we’ve played. We’ve been slow starting and slow getting up to the pace of it which has been an issue for us and something we’ll be focusing on for the next day.
“But once we get settled into a game, we would have enough confidence in ourselves from playing in the Derry League and the Cuchulainn League, that we could actually compete at this level.
“The bulk of our panel has been on Donegal teams over the last few years, so we’d have plenty of belief in our ability to compete at this level and from the training field, we know that we’re training to a high standard so it’s just a matter of doing it on the pitch on matchday. It’s the speed of hurling that’s the difference. I watched the unior final last weekend, and you can just see the difference at this level, the speed of thought, speed of execution of skill.”