Mackin macking the most of Cullyhanna run to final

By Shaun Casey

TWENTY years ago, in October of 2004, Malachy Mackin and his Cullyhanna clubmate Ciaran McKeever helped Armagh win their first ever All-Ireland title at u-21 level, beating Mayo in the decider by two points.

It was a star-studded Armagh line up with most of the team going on to represent the Orchard County at senior level. Andy Mallon, Finnian Moriarty, Aaron Kernan and skipper McKeever held four of the six spots in the defence. Mackin and Gareth Swift held sway at centerfield while Stephen Kernan and Brian Mallon both went on to win Ulster championships in the coming years.

Mackin, or ‘Big Mal’ as he’s more affectionately known, had already progressed into the senior ranks by that stage, part of the panel in the run to the 2003 All-Ireland final,

From there, while starts were limited, he became a real utility player and won a number of Ulster titles in a golden period for the Orchard County.

The 40-year-old also gained some valuable experience in Croke Park throughout his year, including a Division Two league final victory over rivals Down in 2010, and that knowledge could prove essential over the next few days.

Mackin, who made his club championship debut way back in 2001, will wear the number 30 jersey when Cullyhanna take the field on Jones’ Road for Sunday’s All-Ireland Intermediate final.

A part of the management team as well, Mackin has had the best of both worlds this season. He is togging out and training with the team but has also been giving his opinion in the meeting rooms after every session.

Little did he think when he pulled on the boots once again this season, that it would all end in the Theatre of Dreams.

“I suppose I never thought I’d see the day that I’d get another warm-up in Croke Park,” said Mackin, who last played there against Dublin in an All-Ireland qualifier in 2011.

“But it’s just brilliant for the club, Cullyhanna have never been there before and you never know, we might never be there again. We’re going to enjoy the week ahead and just give it everything we have. This team is well fit to do it so we’re looking forward to it.

“You never realise when it’s going to be your last time in Croke Park, so you have to enjoy the occasion and it’s just brilliant to be there with your club – what better way to finish off the season?”

Mackin is the type of guy that will play for as long as the body allows. He captained Cullyhanna to an Intermediate title back in 2008 and lined out in the red, black and yellow in their only two ever Senior Championship final appearances in 2013 and 2016.

An almost career-ending knee injury in 2020 looked to have halted his time on the playing field, but Mackin returned to man the goals for Cullyhanna in the championship in 2022, just as he did in 2019.

“It’s over three years ago now, August 2020, I did the cruciate and PCL and cartilage and everything else that went with it,” described Mackin, who played corner forward in the 2020 club championship. “So given that, it’s great just to get back in and train with the boys.

“I think as a player, you can never better that. For me personally, as a coach and management and helping out, it still doesn’t beat being out there with the boys and playing football so it’s brilliant to be fit to do that.

“I’ve been part of the coaching team all year and I suppose we just had a few wee injuries and stuff throughout the year, more so heading into the county final, and the boys asked would I do a bit of training and help out.

“It was A vs B games and things like that and every week it just seemed to be getting better and better in terms of fitness and I’m really enjoying it. I’m training away with the lads and trying to push them on and trying to make sure everybody is on their toes fighting for positions.”

Mackin has been an integral part of Stephen Reel’s management team for over a decade. Together, the pair won Junior and Intermediate Championships with the Cullyhanna ladies as well as four u-21 championships in five years with the men.

Those u-21 winners now make up a large proportion of the senior team that already have an Ulster title tucked away and are now 60 minutes away from climbing the famed steps of the Hogan Stand.

“The core of the boys are probably there, we had them at u-21 level for five years back in 2011 onwards and we had relatively good success with them, we just didn’t get over the line in Ulster for various reasons,” explained Mackin.

“It’s those core boys that are there at the minute and then we have the likes of Sean (Nugent), Francie (Nugent), Ciaran (McKeever) and Shane (McKeever) involved in the management team, all club men and all looking to do what’s best for Cullyhanna.

“It seems to be working well and we all have different roles, a few words of wisdom here and there and maybe just hearing a different voice at times is a help too.It’s special when you have a group of nearly 40 lads, management and team, all from one club. It just means more.”

Mackin has experienced Croke Park before, as has Ciaran McKeever, while on the field of play, the county trio of Aidan Nugent, Jason Duffy and Ross McQuillan have all played there. Mickey Murray kicked a point against Donegal in the 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final.

There’s more Croke Park knowhow in the Cullyhanna changing room than some lower ranked county teams. However, Mackin points to the lesser-known lights as the main reason that the St Pat’s men battled past Allenwood in the All-Ireland semi-final.

“You have the likes of Tony Donnelly, Kieran McCooey, the older lads on the senior team that would have been in and around the county team before. Sean Connell and Mickey Murray, those boys are at the peak of their powers now.

“They’ve played football at a good level, all of them, at some point in time. They’re great lads to have around the team, they’re the ones driving it on and everyone else is rowing in behind them.

“When you need a wee bit of composure on the field, that’s who we look to. We look to get those boys on the ball and just go through the phases. It was a wee bit manic at the start, the first 10 or 15 minutes we were caught up and down the field and went 4-1 down.

“We had the two goal chances as well but once we got a foothold in the game, the chances started to open up and we took them. I think we were the better team on the day, but we made it a wee bit hard on ourselves but it’s good to get over the line.”

While Croke Park is a big factor, and an exciting one, it shouldn’t be a major factor in deciding the outcome of Sunday’s final. Mackin is expecting a massive challenge from Cork opponents Cill na Martra.

“You can maybe get carried away with the whole Croke Park thing,” insists Mackin. “At the end of the day, it’s a field and it’s the best field to play on because it’s going to be an absolutely perfect surface.

“The boys just need to realise it’s 60, maybe 65 minutes, and you don’t want any regrets leaving it. You want to go now and finish the job and likewise for Cill na Martra, they’ll have a similar ambition.

“There are no bad teams at this stage of the competition.

“It’s going to be a tight game and it’s going to come down to the last two or three points like the semi-final, even against Ballyhaise (in the Ulster final) there was only a point in it.

“There’s going to be absolutely nothing between these teams come next Sunday so fingers crossed maybe we’ll get one more bit of luck,” he added.

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