JACK MADDEN: ‘Blayney battle Belgium for Dutch gold

ULSTER Junior Ladies’ champions Castleblayney Faughs, led by joint-manager Paddy McNally, take on Belgium GAA this Sunday in the All-Ireland quarter-final in the Netherlands.

Paddy McNally is a man whose life essentially revolves around the big ball. Coaching, managing, playing, developing – it’s all in a day’s work. And yet for all this planning, there is no amount of sticky notes that can account for the unpredictability of a life dedicated to sport.

Ten months ago marked the beginning of a new adventure. January14 was one of those evenings that they call short. Howling wind, sheets of rain, and a prime example of a ‘short’ evening that couldn’t feel any longer.

Now in mid-November, the short evenings are back, and so too the rain. A classic case of déjà vu, aside from the fact that it isn’t. St Mary’s Park in Castleblayney is not quite the hive of activity it was only a few months ago, with male and juvenile teams alike in hibernation for the winter.

But one team soldiers on, with the back pocket now clinking with every stride thanks to the addition of an Ulster Ladies’ Junior Championship medal. With it came sweet success. The pints, the craic, the chants. The renaissance of a sleeping giant.

“Here, here, the Faughs are here” was belted out in the Spinning Wheel on the Main Street of Castleblayney town with the kind of passion and gusto the town hadn’t heard in years.

And stuck in the middle of it was a man who plies his trade for Cremartin Shamrocks, a club just five minutes over the road. Taking this managerial role on, alongside ‘Blayney midfielder Barry Hanratty, was sure to strike up controversy, slagging, even vilification, but McNally is well fit to roll with the punches.

The journey

Along with an Ulster title comes a golden ticket to the Netherlands, with an All-Ireland semi-final on the line this weekend. So where does this journey to date, the success of a first Monaghan title and the conquest of Ulster, sit for McNally?

“It’s right up there. This is a relatively new club, only up and going about five or six years. Before this year, they had never won a major adult trophy. The past three or four months, with the league, championship and Ulster Championship, it’s a massive achievement.

“There’s been a massive buzz created and the whole town’s talking about it. There was a huge crowd up in Omagh (for the Ulster final) and the streets were lined when the girls came back.”

Those scenes of glory don’t come without hardship and sacrifice. Although this is McNally’s first year involved, other members of management Tom Miller and Mickey Conlan would need no reminder of the stumbles, trips, and falls of the last few years. Indeed McNally too has seen seismic changes in the team since January.

Success breeds success

“The improvement has been phenomenal. Getting over the line in the league final this year was massive for the group. In terms of finals, they’d been there before. It was only last year they were beaten in the championship final, and they also lost out in the reserve final.

“Ever since I’ve come in, the attitude has been fantastic. The girls are always looking for feedback, training hard, going out to do individual sessions etc.”

The challenge

Plying his trade as a half-forward in the Monaghan Intermediate ranks, McNally believes his playing experience benefits himself and Hanratty in their ability to see their players’ point of view.

As a young manager, he is also in charge of what is an incredibly young panel of players.

With that youth and exuberance also comes a certain level of inexperience, but few on this island would have any idea where to begin when it comes to analysing
this weekend’s opponents Belgium GAA.

That is the next hurdle, with barriers arising off the field before anything that happens on the artificial surface in Maastricht. Each member of the squad has been tasked with arranging €200 sponsorship, while the LGFA in Monaghan, Ulster, and nationally have stepped in to help fundraise what is an expensive trip.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Desperate measures in the form of sitting outside McMahon’s Supervalu with little other than a bucket and face of optimism. A face which detracts from the boredom and attracts some cold, hard, and badly-needed cash.

It’s hardly ideal preparation for the biggest match of so many careers. How hard has it been then to focus the group on the task at hand?

“It’s uncharted territory. None of the players or management have ever been abroad for a game. Fundraising has taken up a lot of time and concentration, but it’s part of my job to refocus the group.

“Training has been good since the Ulster final, and the girls are under no illusion that they’ll have to produce a performance. Belgium have some quality players, there’s some Irish girls on Erasmus, and they managed to beat the English champions.

“We’re not going out here for a holiday.”

A glass half full

Captain Arlene Leonard will skipper the panel that also includes two inter-county players in the shape of Jodie McQuillan and Shona Brady. Should this rapid rise continue, then there is no doubt that the Farney County will be calling on a few more in green and gold in 2023.

McNally has undoubtedly brought a sense of ambition to this group of talented youngsters, and he believes that there is no reason his team cannot go all the way on this remarkable journey.

“The final is only three games away. There’s no point travelling and doing all the fundraising if we don’t genuinely believe we can go on and win it. We’ve got over some very strong teams in Ulster, which has built a resilience for us to go all the way.

“I couldn’t ask for a better group to work with. The attitude and work ethic is second to none. The dressing room is full of talented players, but more importantly it’s filled with good people.

“Whatever happens, the future of this team is very bright.”

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