Ederney – the end of a famine

THEY talk about the class of ’68 in Ederney, but now they’ve been joined by the class of 2020.

Ederney won their second ever senior championship title with a convincing victory over six-in-a-row chasing Derrygonnelly in late September, but it was really the culmination of 15 years’ work.

Mickey Cassidy instilled a cultural change in the club in the mid-noughties, and it was fitting that he returned as manager this year to help steer St Joseph’s over the line.

We’ve spoken to two players who have been there for the entirety of what has been a rather eventful journey to the top: 43-year-old Declan Deazley, who came on in the final few minutes of their victory over Derrygonnelly, and goalkeeper Chris Snow, who lofted over two points from 45 metres on a day when every Ederney player hit top gear against the Fermanagh kingpins.

It was a case of third time lucky for both men: Ederney, then a Division Two outfit, were thumped by the great Enniskillen Gaels team in the 2006 decider, and they didn’t fare any better in 2018 as they were dismantled by Derrygonnelly on a scoreline of 2-16 to 0-10.

So reflecting back on this year’s final, it seems almost unbelievable that the Harps failed to score from open play after nicking a tenth minute goal, and Snow pinpoints last year’s close-fought league decider as a possible turning point in the rivalry.

We’d been knocking on the door the last few years, and we put them to the pin of their collars in last year’s league final.

I think it gave us a bit of appetite to go on and take it a step further. Lockdown probably worked in our favour as well. Lads didn’t have too much else to do, so they were very committed to training.

The lads from Belfast were home a lot more, and we maintained the work we’d done in the preseason over the lockdown period so we didn’t have an awful lot of work to do on the fitness side of things.”

Goalkeeper Snow, who was a 17-year-old corner-back when they lost to Enniskillen Gaels in 2006, says they have been steadily building since Mickey Cassidy first got involved in 2005.

He’s been instrumental to the whole thing. When he came in we won the Intermediate Championship and got ourselves into the senior final the following year.

We were outclassed really, it was the tail-end of that great Enniskillen Gaels team, and that was probably an eye-opener for us.

We’d two or three minor teams filtering through and we pushed on and got out of Division Two, and for the last decade we’ve finished in the top four in nearly every year.

We won a league title in 2012 which was important to us, but in the championship we ran into Roslea on a few days where the Quigleys were rampant, and Derrygonnelly beat us a few times en route to their five in-a-row.

I think we learnt a lot from our defeat to Derrygonnelly in 2018. I watched that game back myself in the lead-up to this year’s final.

When you watch that game back, young forwards like Sean Cassidy and Mark McCauley looked like young cubs whereas now they’ve filled out, and that extra experience and guile helped us a lot in the final.”

39-year-old Martin McGrath won the man of the match award for a herculean performance in the final, but he’s actually out-done on the age-front by Declan Deazley, who turned 43 in October. He came off the bench in all three of their championship matches this year, but he’s much more than an exceptionally talented club player (he’s been at the forefront of running Ederney’s new voluntarily-led cross-community gym, to cite just one example of his sterling work behind the scenes).

Deazley has been playing for even longer than Snow – he says he was thrown into the team as a ‘skinny midfielder’ around 1996/7 – and only for a twist of fate he could’ve called it a day long ago.

I’d seen the dark days, some long, long seasons playing lower league football and losing Division Two finals and play-offs.

Obviously we had a great run to the final in 2006 and that gave us a great buzz – it was actually very reminiscent of Fermanagh in 2004 where we were going into every game as underdogs.

We were a Division Two team and played four Division One teams in the championship, and obviously we got a bit of a lesson from Enniskillen in the final.

You think those days are going to come around every year but they don’t and it actually took us another four years to get into Division One.

I’d a hernia operation around 2006 and the following year I really struggled to get fit and I thought I’d pack it in, a lot of my peers had already left.

I played a bit of reserve football but was asked to be on the bench for a senior starred game where a few players were injured. After about ten minutes somebody got injured and I was brought on, and that was me back in the fold for another decade!”

Deazley admits that the fear of missing out on winning a championship medal was one of the reasons he’s stuck around over the last decade.

Some of my friends’ fathers played on the ’68 team. I remember being around those houses when I was very young and seeing the championship medals and getting told ‘we’re the only people with those medals, nobody else in Ederney has them.’

You were almost being teased about it, it almost stuck in my head that one day I wanted to say ‘you’re not the only ones with a championship medal!

I have to say it wasn’t the only reason I haven’t quit, I love the social aspect and camaraderie with the boys, and even keeping fit.

Obviously there was that bit of fear that the following year would be the year they were going to win it. I remember when we were managed by Iggy Gallagher, talking to him at the end of the season and he says ‘don’t walk away’ and that it could end up being an awful regret.”

Right from the starting pistol, Ederney looked in great shape in this year’s championship. They beat a talented Belnaleck team by 1-11 to 2-2, gaining revenge for last season’s shock defeat to the same outfit, before overcoming Teemore with plenty to spare in the semi-finals.

It was almost inevitable Derrygonnelly would be waiting on the other side in the semi-finals, and even though there’s a keen rivalry between the teams, Snow says they’ve been pushed on to greater heights by the Harps.

Snow said: “Irvinestown are our natural rivals but Derrygonnelly are the kingpins. We’ve had a few battles with them the last few years so there was a bit of needle at times, and that’s just the nature of things when two teams are going for titles.

There’s still huge respect there. We’ve set the standard for the rest of us to reach, and we’ve definitely improved ourselves in the last three or four years as a result.”

There were heroes all over the pitch in their victory over the Harps. Snow paid particular tribute to club icon Marty McGrath, who was invited up by skipper Declan McCusker to lift the cup.

There’s not much more that can be said about Marty. He probably thought it wasn’t going to be, but he never gives up.

When we came back after lockdown I had a hamstring injury and was training off-to-the-side with Marty and a few other lads who’d been carrying injuries. Marty was driving the whole thing on, and he said he’d already trained that morning at 7 o’clock.

People talk about getting Marty to play on, I think our biggest problem is getting Marty to rest and look after himself because he trains that bloody hard.”

A couple of Tyrone men also played their part in Ederney’s success: trainer Chris Kelly, who’s from Eskra, and chairman Sean Donnelly, a native of Beragh.

Snow said: “Chris has been our trainer the last three years. He’s been a great help with training. He does a lot of analysis and his work behind the scenes is unreal.

Sean Donnelly is the other one, he’s been a selector and is chairman as well. He’s been to the fore of everything, we’ve a new stand, a new floodlit training pitch and a gym. He’s been instrumental in ensuring we’ve a well-run club.”

Another hero of their championship success was Finber Gillan, whose jaw was broken in their quarter-final final victory over Belnaleck. Miraculously, he made it back to play a full role in the final (maybe it’s not that miraculous when you consider the pioneering treatment of surgeon Darren McCusker, another member of the team).

Deazley commented: “I remember back in the day, one morning at training I gave out to him cos he turned up a bit worse for wear. I was giving out about his attitude, saying he’ll never win a championship with that attitude.

Now Finbar’s one of the older heads and is a legend, a brilliant player and has been for years. He has the heart of a lion. The week after he broke the jaw he was back on the pitch training on his own, he was saying to the boys ‘you have to get there, I’ll be ready in four weeks.’

As for Deazley’s own contribution, he came on in the 57th minute of the final as Ederney closed out the game in a composed manner given all that was at stake. Well Declan, was it always the plan that you’d come on in the closing stages and see the lads home?

The plan was to come on and score the winning goal… maybe that’s a dream and not a plan. I suppose our game-plan required a lot of hard work and is very intense, especially in the middle third, so we talked a lot about the guys on the bench being ready to come on. The plan was to basically come on and empty the tank. You have to bide your time and take your chance when you get it.”

Obviously winning the championship final after 25 years of service was a dream come true for Deazley, who was delighted that his family were able to attend even in the current climate.

At the final whistle it was an explosion of emotion and a weight off the shoulders. For 30 seconds or so I went a bit mad really.

There was still a limited number of fans there and it was great to see the expressions on their faces. My three boys and my wife were there too. I was delighted to be able to share it with them, there’s definitely some pictures after the game I’ll always be really proud of.”

As for Snow, he’s determined that they don’t rest on their laurels after such a historic victory. He’s got the taste for more, and if they maintain their high standards, they’ve every chance of overtaking the team of ‘68.

There’s relief that at least we have one now, but in a strange way it makes you hungrier. You know what it’s like and want to push on. It’s definitely in the group to win a few more hopefully.

We don’t want to be sitting back thinking we’ve made it. We want to push on and end up as hopefully the best team that’s ever come out of Ederney.”

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