The perfect day: A look back to the 2023 Hogan success for Omagh

Eoin McElholm and Conor Owens reminisce on a magical day for Omagh as they captured the Hogan Cup in style

By Niall Gartland

IF CARLSBERG did Hogan Cup final wins. Last St Patrick’s Day at the theatre of dreams that is Croke Park, Omagh CBS tore asunder Sligo school Summerhill College on a scoreline of 6-16 to 3-8.

Pretty darn comprehensive you might say, but it doesn’t even tell the whole story of the Brothers’ dominance on the day.

At the midway point of the second half, Omagh CBS carried a 4-14 to 0-6 lead and a flurry of late consolation scores put a smidge more respectability on the scoreboard from a Summerhill perspective.

Omagh CBS were quite simply lethal. In truth they could have had about 10 goals – they rattled the woodwork twice, spurned a few other opportunities, and the gas thing about it is, their skipper Eoin McElholm says that the strategy envisioned by their coaches had simply been to chip away at points.

That’s obviously not how it worked out as it became starkly apparent early in proceedings that this was, putting it politely, something of a mismatch.

We’ve spoken to two prominent members of that team who will be very interested spectators indeed when Omagh CBS go in search of a historic back-to-back this Saturday at GAA Headquarters.

Their team captain was Eoin McElholm, who rattled in 2-5 in a superlative individual performance, while Conor Owens also had a terrific game and contributed five points to their overall tally.

Loughmacrory lad McElholm has certainly been kept busy over the last year, so he hasn’t had too much time to reminisce on the events of last St Patrick’s Day, but in his quiet moments he acknowledges just how special it all was.

McElholm said: “I probably haven’t thought about it in great detail as I haven’t had the time. I haven’t really had a break from football since between Tyrone u-20s, club football, freshers and back into the u-20s again.

“But when it does enter my head, I certainly appreciate that it’s special. Captaining the school to its second ever Hogan Cup was unbelievable, it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had to be honest.”

A month prior to their Hogan Cup success, McElholm got his hands on the MacRory Cup at the end of a particularly demanding campaign navigating the bearpit that is Ulster football.

Their All-Ireland campaign was different; their cut loose against Naas CBS in the Hogan Cup semi-final and continued where they left off when they pitched up at Croke Park. They had been steeled by MacRory Cup football and nothing was going to get in their way.

“The quarter-final and semi-finals of the MacRory Cup probably turned out to be our two toughest games of the lot. The MacRory final (against Holy Trinity, Cookstown) was tough as well even though we won it fairly comfortably in the end.

“After that, we didn’t really know the teams, we just went out and played. We knew that we wouldn’t be beaten if we played to our potential, to matter who the opposition were.”

The Brothers embarked on a trial run at Croke Park to get themselves acclimatised to the 82,000 thousand capacity stadium before game day arrived. They could also call upon McElholm and Owens’ experience of playing in the All-Ireland Minor final of 2021, another factor in their composed performance on the big stage.

McElholm said: “We went down to Croke Park a week previous to get a walk about and more or less rehearsed what we were going to do.

“It definitely helped that Conor and I had played in Croke Park before as well, we were able to say to the lads that it’s just another pitch that looks better than the rest, and not to think about it too much.”

They could also call upon a highly knowledgeable management team of Diarmaid McNulty, Ciaran McBride and Pat McNabb. The first two names remain at the helm while McNabb has changed age groups and managed the school to the Oisin McGrath final, which has been rescheduled to Friday.

McElholm commented: “I don’t have to say too much about Ciaran, he’s been about that long taking teams and played in an All-Ireland final himself.

“Diarmaid won a Hogan Cup and has plenty of coaching experience. He came in last year and was just like one of us. Whatever he says, we’d take on bond. Every player got on with Diarmaid like they were best friends and it was the same with Ciaran.”

The day itself couldn’t have gone any better as Omagh CBS cruised to a lop-sided victory in a devastating all-round team performance. The final scoreline said it all but McElholm says they didn’t expect them to rattle the net on half-a-dozen occasions.

“The plan was to keep chipping away but we moved the ball quickly and the goals were on so we had to take them. With the pace and skill that we had, Croke Park obviously suited us. It was brilliant and everyone was buzzing afterwards.”

McElholm has finished his studies at the school, but naturally enough he’s maintained a key interest in the fortunes of Omagh CBS this season. He’s also kept a close eye on his Loughmacrory colleagues Ruairi McCullagh and Eoin Donaghy, who started last year as well, while Enda Donaghy and Michael McNamee are also part of the panel.

“Watching the games I nearly wish I could be playing again. I had faith in the current team from the very start and it’s been brilliant to see the Loughmacrory lads do well. Eoin probably didn’t get as much game time with our seniors in 2023 but he’s developed so much and it’s great to see.”

Another leading protagonist on last year’s team was Owens, who lofted over five points, four from play, in the Hogan Cup final. He recalls the moment they switched their attention to their looming All-Ireland campaign having claimed the school’s first MacRory Cup title since 2007.

Owens said: “I remember coming back into the school with the MacRory Cup and before we went into the hall we met in the PE room. Ciaran McBride said ‘this is done now after today, we have more to win.’ That was just a day or two after winning the MacRory.”

Like McElholm, Owens believes that they were able to play a more attacking brand of football after claiming the MacRory Cup.

“Ulster Schools football is claustrophobic. A lot of teams play 14 or 15 lads behind the ball and it makes it hard to score. Once we got out of Ulster we were able to open up and show what we were about as footballers.

“We’d huge belief in the group and we knew the players we had. After winning the MacRory, we knew we’d more in us and could push to a higher level if needed, so we definitely had belief we could go the whole way.”

Owens delivered on All-Ireland final day with a polished performance up front, but he name-checks his hard-working colleague Liam Óg Mossey as making life easier for himself.

“It always helps when you’re playing with the calibre of all those players around me. I’d wee Liam Óg beside me. He’s dynamite, he never stops running, never stops showing for the ball.

“I’d say he’s gone under the radar a bit but he’s definitely well known this year. He’s a great lad too, he’s up with the Tyrone u-20s and he’s good craic as well.”

While they didn’t have much time to savour their MacRory Cup final win, when the Hogan Cup was safely secured, they could sit back and acknowledge a job well done.

“It was still all systems go after winning the MacRory as we wanted to go on and win the Hogan as well.

“It was special after winning the Hogan. It all sank in at the same time, the whole thing was wrapped up and you had the two medals in the back-pocket.”

In doing so, Owens also made a significant slice of club history as the first ever Beragh Red Knights man to win a Hogan Cup.

“I was definitely very proud coming back to the club and a lot of people were delighted to see it happen. Sean McCann’s involved this year, he’s been really good in defence, hopefully he can get another one for the club.”

To conclude, Owens and McElholm both had the small matter of their A-Level studies to see to once they’d done the business on the football field.

McElholm got the head down as best he could, but he couldn’t help but be reminded of the day where he climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand to hold aloft the most prestigious school’s football trophy in the GAA.

“That was probably the hardest thing – parking it and getting stuck into the studies”, said McElholm. “It was talked about every single day, the flags and photos were up. When you walked into the school you saw the slideshow of the photos from that day as well. It just showed how much it meant to the entire school community.”

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