They won an All-Ireland title with St Gall’s back in the day and now six of that team are lining out for the reserves. Shaun Casey writes…
HOW many reserve teams throughout the country can claim to have six All-Ireland winners in their ranks? St Gall’s golden generation have got the band back together and are strutting their skills at reserve level.
Terry O’Neill, Colin Brady, Kevin Niblock, Sean Kelly, Mark Kelly and Anto Healy all helped the Belfast club create history in 2010 as they claimed the All-Ireland title, and all six lined out last Wednesday evening for the reserve side.
Aodhan Gallagher and Kieran McGourty were on holidays but could feature in the next round. Michael Pollock, who missed out on the All-Ireland success having joined the club the following season, was the star of as the reserves overcame St Brigid’s by the minimum of margins in the championship preliminary round.
“It’s only natural for boys that have been through so much together and had so many positive days and great outcomes to want to keep playing together,” said former Antrim sharpshooter Pollock.
“I think generally players of our age do make the decision to play reserves because they can’t make the commitments (at senior level) anymore due to family life or their job or even some of the boys in our squad are managing teams themselves.”
A number of the panel have 13 Antrim Senior Championship medals gathered during a golden age for St Gall’s, but time waits for no one and the players, for various reasons, can no longer commit to senior football.
“They don’t have the time to commit to three or four days a week, but sometimes as well, senior managers decide to go with younger boys, and I suppose that’s their prerogative when they’re in that seat.
“The senior team and the reserve team both train together but I would say that the boys that were part of that great team that won the All-Ireland and won so many Antrim championships in a row, those boys would just turn up and play the games unfortunately.
“I think a lot of it, it’s not always down to controversy. Some boys go on and they have families when they feel that their football career is maybe coming to an end and there’s three boys involved in management.
“Terry O’Neill, Kevin Niblock and Sean Kelly are all taking Derrylaughlin in Tyrone. And then of course there’s other boys involved too that just find something else when they get to a certain stage in their life, and they can’t commit to training.
“It’s not always controversial but obviously there are occasions as well where managers make calls where they feel that older players shouldn’t be a part of it and again that’s their prerogative when they’re in that position.
“It’s a combination of all those things, boys managing teams of their own and having other responsibilities and people just taking a step back and being happy with their achievements and obviously senior managers have a say in it as well.”
While the legs may have slowed during the twilight of their careers, the quality of their play is still evident. And the smarts upstairs haven’t faltered, “Those boys, I think they would know each other probably better than I would know them. Obviously, I have 10 great years with them before they sort of started to fade away,” added Pollock.
“You can definitely see when you go onto the pitch that the chemistry is still there, that understanding between them. I think sometimes when you look at football, you can look at the complexity of the game too much and sometimes it just comes down to quality.
“Our boys, even though they mightn’t have the fitness or the conditioning that they once had, they’re still really gifted, upstairs especially. They make good decisions on the pitch, and I suppose for reserve teams, that’s a massive thing.”
“I was actually down in Ballymacnab (where former St Gall’s goalkeeper Chris Kerr now plays) recently, I was very grateful to train with them a few weeks ago and you could see the camaraderie they have in terms of the seniors and reserves all training together.
“When you have good senior players, the younger players coming through are going to see a good example and they’re going to see good decisions being made on the pitch.
“The communication as well of the boys were on the pitch, it was first class. They’re very calm under presure, there were different stages throughout the game last week where it got very close and there were mistakes made in the game.
“There were a few times where the scoreline was maybe a point or two either way, but the cool heads, the icebags on the heads of the old boys, that’s something that probably never leaves.”
Things are more relaxed too. As is usually the case in most counties, reserve football doesn’t have the same systematic play or tactical approach that senior football does, leaving the older heads more time and space to blossom.
“I think that reserve games are enjoyable for the spectator. I remember being on the pitch last week and you could hear the excitement, there was a decent crowd at it and it’s because the game is that wee bit more open. It ended 2-15 to 2-14 and it was end to end football.
“Obviously, because it’s reserve football as well, there were plenty of chances scorned on both sides too so it actually could have been a higher scoreline in the end.
“But I suppose most managers would actually say that they want their reserve team to reflect their senior team in terms of how they set up and how they attack and that’s an ideal scenario for the senior manager. If they can do that, then they can transition players from the reserve team into the senior team.
“However, I think that doesn’t happen so often and that’s probably why it is reserve football, it’s a wee bit more disjointed and a bit more disorganised. But I’d say in terms of the actual spectacle, it’s more enjoyable.”
The golden oldies are the headline acts for the St Gall’s reserves, but Pollock insists they aren’t the only talented members of the team.
“We do have a few young players coming through but the majority of our younger players at the minute are playing senior football. There’s seven or eight or even nine boys form those great teams that I played on in the past that are playing on the reserve team this year.
“That would mean that the majority of the young boys in the club are all playing senior football then. We would have a couple of boys that have come up from minor and then some that would be reserve players and I don’t mean that as a dig at the players.
“I think sometimes you just have to respect that certain boys are playing at their own level, and they mightn’t be necessarily young boys either. There are some boys that we have there that have played for our reserve team for four or five or six years.
“They’re great boys and when they go to training, they’ll always give you 100 per cent. When I even look back to 2014 which was the last time we won the Antrim Senior Championship, we had boys who were playing reserves that were never going to get on for the senior team, but they were crucial for training.
“We had that for that year but unfortunately, I think that may have just faded away now. I suppose losing so many boys, we lost Chris (Kerr) to Ballymacnab as he moved down there for family reasons and CJ (McGourty) moved to Ardboe for family reasons as well.
“And then you have a litany of other reasons why players fade away. To lose 12 or 13 senior players at the one time, it’s quite difficult then to have that continuity between the senior and reserves teams, it becomes tough.
“The dynamics of reserve football, it’s not just there for young players to come through. In our scenario there’s a blend of a bit of everything. There are players who are reserve players, players that are older and can’t give the commitment anymore and then there’s some young boys coming through.
“Josh Quinn played the other night, and he seems very talented and very fit, I think he plays a bit of Irish League as well. It’s players like him and maybe other seasoned reserved players that have played a bit of senior football too.
“The likes of Michael Hopkins, he’s very committed and scored the winning point last week and that’s great for him because the reserve team would be a big part of what Michael is about, to kick the winning point in a championship match was great for him.”
St Gall’s took on Portglenone in the last eight this week and the old guard were in the same form as the opening round. A semi-finals awaits.