A staggering 14 of Down’s u-20 panel hail from the Burren. Michael McMullan chatted to coach Stephen O’Hare and two of the players about the club’s new golden generation.
ANYONE who really knows their GAA will be versed in Burren. Of the 28 winners of the All-Ireland Club Championship, they are one of nine to have climbed Everest more than once.
They had floodlights before anyone else in Ulster and produced Down’s 1991 captain Paddy O’Rourke. The Danny Murphy Cup, lifted by Down u-20 skipper Ryan Magill last week, was named in memory of a Burren stalwart.
They are the only club in Ulster to add all pieces of provincial silver to their All-Ireland titles. Only Crossmaglen have bettered their five senior titles. Their u-21s were twice winners of the Paddy McLarnon Cup in Creggan. The Paul McGirr u-16 and the Jimmy McConville minor cups were annexed in Dromore and St Paul’s respectively.
Until the second coming of Kilcoo in 2009, Burren were top of the pops in Down senior football. Of the last 14 winners on the base of the Frank O’Hare Cup, the Magpies appear 11 times to Burren’s three.
In that time, they’ve met in four finals. Burren’s sole victory came in 2018 with Kilcoo emerging from the others including 2021 when Jerome Johnston’s early bullet to the roof of Cillian Burns’ net was too much to peg back on a significant day on Kilcoo’s march to All-Ireland glory.
When the Down u-20 bus noses out of Newry on Saturday for their All-Ireland date with Kildare, manager Conor Laverty will have 14 Burren players on board.
For now, they are in his camp. It won’t seep into the Kilcoo side of this football brain now, but he’ll know the long-term story. Kilcoo must keep their wits about them. There is a serious contender coming in search of their own golden age.
Every success story has a beginning and Burren’s burgeoning senior crop is no different. The club have always mixed at the top of underage with silverware a regular enough visitor to tell them they were getting plenty right.
Stephen O’Hare is one of the coaches who put their shoulder to the underage coaching wheel and is now involved with Jim McCorry’s senior management team, searching for the biggest prize.
Alongside Eoin McCartan, Gerry Poland and Willie McMahon, he steered Burren to their second Féile All-Ireland in 2017, a season that saw them field two u-14 teams who ended up sharing the Down league title. That same group are the backbone of the Down u-20 team hoping to help take the county back to the top.
“A lot of them had good birthdays,” O’Hare said of one of the reasons for the success. He is being modest.
Two of Burren’s stars, Harry Magill and Odhrán Murdock, share a different opinion. The reason for success…well, it was the coaching from a litany of men like O’Hare.
Magill puts it “all down” to the effort of those looking after their teams.
“You remember going to training every Sunday when it was the u-6s and the u-8s, then there were tournaments every Saturday with the u-10s and u-12s.” he recalls.
Murdock is the same. All the early memories merge into one block of coaching and playing.
“We won a few of them (tournaments) and then went to the Féile at u-14 so we knew then we had a great team,” Murdock said.
“We had good coaches, a lot of good men who came in at the right time and I would put our success down to them.
“Eoin McCartan, Stevie O’Hare, Conor Magill, Barry O’Hare, Aidan Woods…we had a lot of top-class coaches going up (the ranks).”
The starting point was Jim McGivern and Dan McCartan giving up part of their Friday to help Sean Murdock coach in the local Carrick Primary School. It was the same on game day, they’d be there to help shape Burren’s future stars as they took their first footballing steps.
The club and school sought an arrangement to help everyone. Mrs Anne Cassidy agreed. One Friday turned into another and so it began.
Progression continued and it spread into the club sending teams to the various blitzes. The more football the better.
“That kept coming through and the first time they got going was in the Newry Mitchel’s Tournament, there were clubs from all over Ireland at it,” O’Hare recalls of one of the early milestones.
Things ramped up by u-14 level with a Down Féile title and went all the way to All-Ireland glory with wins over Dublin’s Na Fianna and SalthillKnocknacarra in the group stages.
“We played a good team from Douglas in Cork in the semi-final,” O’Hare adds. “We beat Magherafelt in the final and it was the first of a few meetings with them.”
Burren were comfortable 8-15 to 0-9 winners when the sides met two years later in the final of the Paul McGirr Cup with Zach Murdock (3-3) and Niall Toner (2-8) on song.
Before a ball was kicked in the 2017 u-14 season, a quick headcount totted up 54 players available to O’Hare and the management team.
“It was a strong group and we split the two teams in half,” O’Hare said of the group. Success is nice, but Burren had their long-term glasses on.
Two teams were entered in the league. Challenge games were arranged when needed to make sure everyone had a chance to fully progress. The fact everyone got a league medal kept the development ticking over.
There was always the thought of the late developer, on the outskirts of a starting place at underage, who could make a break for a full career later in life.
“When it came to the championship, we were only able to put in one team and we won it as well at u-14,” O’Hare added.
“For the league, we just split the panel in half. The numbers were high and we had a lot of good players.
“Our teams played each other three times in the league and we matched up the teams and kept it as tight as possible.”
The extra coaching in Carrick Primary School had paid off and the endless hours on top of it. The buzz carried on towards their All-Ireland Féile plans.
The depth of their quality was tested when Eoin McKernan and Ryan Magill both sustained broken arms in the same night.
It would buckle most team’s plans, but not Burren’s. The management knew they had the tools to challenge for national silver, but they now needed a rejig. It worked a treat with the All-Ireland making a return.
When the u-16 season came around the next year, Neil Coulter and Stefan White took over the coaching duties to add variety.
“They kicked on and won the championship in Down,” O’Hagan added. “We lost to Lavey in the Paul McGirr semi-final (in 2018) before winning it in 2019.”
With Covid and the restrictions pushing pause on Ulster minor action in Belfast, Burren were left wondering if they could’ve added to the title they annexed after beating Kilrea on New Year’s Day 2017.
Struggling to field a team in a smaller club brings problems. In Burren’s case, a surplus of numbers posed a different challenge.
“It’s about getting them as much football and as many matches as you can.” O’Hare said. “Then, when you are winning, players are reluctant to walk away
“They are a great group and just worked away. The lads all and came from great families – the family is key.
“We were looking forward to the MacRory Cup in 2021 before it was cancelled. It would’ve been great seeing the lads up against each other for Abbey and ‘The College’ (St Colman’s).
“Now, they are in with the county,” O’Hare adds. “It was great to see how they stuck together so well as a group. It is great to see so many involved, there has been a lot of hard work done by the lads and the club, now Conor Laverty is keeping it going.”
With their Ulster medals in their pockets, Down head to Parnell Park this weekend hoping to break more ground.
“I have been playing with all the Burren lads and it is a dream to win an Ulster title with your county one day,” Harry Magill added, speaking with a beaming smile.
He speaks as he is surrounded by family and well-wishers in that magical half-hour period after winning a title. It’s priceless.
“There is a lot of talk about all the Burren lads in this team and how we didn’t do well at minor, it’s great to get over the line.”
Odhrán Murdock agrees. They didn’t perform against Fermanagh in the 2020 minor championship and the 1-1 from Niall Toner wasn’t enough to avoid a 0-10 to 1-4 defeat.
“We didn’t perform on the day,” Murdock admits. “That hurt probably helped us this year and brought us on. It was maybe responsible for winning Ulster u-20.
“It definitely helps when you have so many boys who have been playing together for so long,” he said of playing alongside the lads from Burren.
“When it is a really tight game and you can trust each other.”
Harry Magill – brother senior star Danny – talks about their father, Miceal, winning an All-Ireland with Down. Their path is not one of pressure, but more a level of expectation.
“Thankfully he (Danny) has made his mark on the senior squad and I have made a mark with the u-20s,” Harry proudly continues.
“We both have Ulster medals. He was his from 2021, but hopefully I can get one over on him and go on to win an All-Ireland.”
At club level, the next step is searching for a 12th senior title in Down. Jim McCorry and Gearóid Adams are involved, with Stephen O’Hagan and Eoin McCartan on the management team. The latter two oversee the u-20 team and give a familiar feel to the underage days.
“It’s all about getting them through to senior level,” O’Hagan stressed. “We lost a (senior) final in ’21, a tight match when we had three u-18s playing.
“We won the (senior) league last year and had seven u-19s playing against Kilcoo in the final. We lost our way in the quarter-final of the championship when we lost on penalties.
“The club have a lot of goals and players have a lot of goals. It takes hard work to get there and we are by no means near where we want to go.”
Harry Magill is happy to see Burren’s new breed begin to have an influence on the senior ranks. He knows the destination. Now it’s about getting there.
“Hopefully we can bring Burren back to the pinnacle of it,” he said. “Hopefully we can win a senior championship and get Burren back onto the front pages of the newspapers.”
It will be sooner rather than later when the Frank O’Hare Cup adorns the green and white of Burren.
Kilcoo and the rest of Down will have other ideas, but the golden u-14 group of 2017 will be pushing as hard as the rest to get Burren back to the top.