By Niall Gartland
HE’S an Antrim man by birth, but he’s taught at Holy Trinity for nearly 15 years and is indelibly associated with their rise through the ranks of Ulster Schools Football.
John McKeever will be on the sidelines for the second MacRory Cup final running, and this time around he hopes there will be a better outcome for the Cookstown-based school.
He isn’t the only one involved, of course – there’s a certain Peter Canavan, 2021 Football of the Year Kieran McGeary and many others behind the scenes who have all contributed in their own way to Holy Trinity’s up-turn in fortunes.
McKeever, a native of Portglenone, said: “I have been teaching in the school for 14 years now, Peter Canavan is there 30 years, and we now have Kieran McGeary in with us. Kieran is a past pupil and was a very successful player in the school.
“Peter has been driving this for a long time, and the work that he puts into gaelic games in the school is phenomenal.
“We have come up through the ranks through Vocational Schools, winning an All-Ireland.
“And when the bodies joined together under the one umbrella of Ulster Colleges, we won a MacLarnon Cup title five years ago.
“That was the stepping stone to move to MacRory football, and when we moved up there we wanted to hold our own, to develop and progress and thankfully we have done that in backing last year’s final up again.”
For the first time since the last all-Tyrone final, back in 2009, the MacRory Cup will be held in O’Neill’s Healy Park. It was the natural choice, and while it’s a lot closer to Omagh CBS, McKeever is content with the selection.
“Yeah, absolutely. It’s two Tyrone schools and it’s the main ground in Tyrone, so a lot of our players have good experience of playing in Healy Park on a number of occasions.
“We’re happy enough with it, and it’s set up for a really good competitive game.”
Holy Trinity faced another Tyrone school, their neighbours St Patrick’s Dungannon in a ferociously contested semi-final contest a fortnight ago. From a Red Hand perspective, it bodes very well for the future.
“It’s incredible, but it’s testament to the work that has been done in all the Tyrone schools and in the clubs in all the catchment areas.
“To have three Tyrone schools competing in the MacRory Cup semi-finals, I don’t think it has ever been done before, and Donaghmore are in the MacLarnon final.
“It just goes to show the conveyor belt of talent that there is in Tyrone, and the players that are coming through.
“Against Dungannon Academy and now against Omagh CBS, all our players would know their players, and vice versa.
“A lot of them are club team-mates and they’re good friends, so our players would nearly be helping the management team in terms of preparation too, because both oppositions know each other inside out.”
Holy Trinity didn’t perform to their optimum in last year’s MacRory Cup final defeat to St Mary’s Magherafelt. Perhaps nerves played their part, but McKeever hopes they’ll be stronger for the experience.
“It’s great being in back to back finals, and we have a good number of the players from last year still involved.
“You’d be hoping that that journey last year and the occasion of the final would definitely stick to them, that experience of the build-up to it, and obviously the pain of the defeat to St Mary’s Magherafelt.
“The boys would have learned a lot of lessons from that, so hopefully that will help us in our preparations this year, and we’ll try our very best to go one step further.”
There’s no shortage of character in the Holy Trinity ranks and they’ve navigated an extremely tricky path to the final.
“We were in an extremely difficult group against Dungannon Academy, St Mary’s Magherafelt and St Pat’s Armagh.
“Our goal was to get out after Christmas, to get to knock-out football, and thank God we got out of our group, after losing our first game against the Academy.
“We learned a lot of lessons from that game in Eglish, and we moved on to St Pat’s Cavan, and that wasn’t plain sailing, because going into injury-time there was only a point between the two teams.
“And then we moved on to the St Pat’s Maghera game when there was a minute left on the clock and we were a goal down, and our boys grinded it out again.
“They showed great heart and determination and battling qualities to score a goal and a point in the last minute to take us to the Academy game.”
“And that game went to the wire too. Going into four minutes of added time the game was a draw, and our boys just found a way to win it, and defended for the lives in the last couple of minutes.
“As a management team, you have to be very pleased with that in terms of the character that the fellows showed at such a young age.”