This Saturday the St. Eunan’s U16 team travel to Dromore in Tyrone for the Spirit of Paul McGirr Final. In recent years the tournament has been granted official Ulster Championship status and the lads from the Cathedral Town will take on Down champions, Warrenpoint in Saturday’s decider.
Pauric Ryan’s charges have been in irresistible form this year winning both the Northern & Co. League titles before completing the set in the Championship where they overcame MacCumhaills in the Northern Board & County finals just 3 weeks ago. It’s been a hectic period for the players and management over the last couple of months – especially with the Secondary schools also in action many midweeks during their run to the final but they hope to turn it on one more time to end a dream season.
U16 club football didn’t begin until the last week in June and it’s been pretty much full on since then. “We started training in February initially and a few weeks in word came that there would be no U16 football until later in the year so we put the brakes on for 6 weeks or so as most of the boys were flat out playing other sports and playing schools football. It’s been a balancing act from that perspective trying to manage their workload but so far it’s worked out well and we have a clean bill of health heading into Saturday’s Final” said manager Ryan.
Ryan pointed to the strength of the panel for the reason he feels they find themselves in the Ulster Final, “We are very lucky in terms of strength in depth this year. We’ve been missing different players for various reasons for different games here and there but anytime anyone has come in, they have made an impact and made the transition seamless for us as a team. We know that if and when our bench is needed, they will come in and make an impact. Some players like Oisin McGarvey, Ronan McGeehin, Paddy Tobin, Conor O’Donnell and Ronan McCann to name a few would probably start in any other U16 team in the county and they’ve been called upon different days to step into our starting line-up and have never let the side down and when needed off the bench them and others have made a difference. It can make picking the team more difficult but as managers it puts us in a strong position”.
Goals have been a key element to the success of this St. Eunan’s team, a fact that Ryan acknowledged, “Yeah, we’ve scored goals for fun this year alright. We have a very strong forward line and they work very well together as well as working hard for the team. We’re blessed really with the talent in the forward line with the likes of Conor O’Donnell, Michael Gallagher, Daragh Ellison, Padraig McGettigan, Sean Breen, Ronan McGeehin and Oisin McGarvey to call upon as well as up and coming players like Oran Winston and Dylan Duggan who will be underage again next year. One day Conor Duck will get you a goal or two, it could be Michael or Padraig or Daragh another day so everyone is contributing with scores and we are scoring a lot of points as well – guys like Peter McEniff are joining in the attacks and getting points too. While a lot of attention goes to the forward line, our midfield and defence have been incredible too.
Shane O’Donnell has picked up a couple of Man of the Match awards along the way – most recently against Derrygonnelly in the Ulster quarter-final game two weeks ago and he is ably assisted in midfield by the energetic Conor McKinney. Cormac Finn has been playing the sweeper role this year and his work rate is incredible for us. Peter McEniff, Seán Ryan, James Kelly, Brendan Horgan, Cormac O’Kane and Anthony Gallagher are the men that usually line up in front of team captain Eoin O’Boyle and they were brilliant again on Saturday in fairness. Eoin made some good saves early to keep us in the game and Seán picked up the man of the match award against Rossa after Shane got it the week before so despite the big scores we’ve put up it’s a total team effort that’s been the key for us this year.”
Ryan is joined on the side-line by Sean MacIntyre and joe Higgins this year along with PJ Kelly who has been with Pauric since the Sunday Morning Academy days and he feels not only is there strength in depth on the pitch but on the line also, “Myself and PJ have been with the boys since they were 8 or 9 at the academy and this year we brought Sean Mac and Joe on board and it’s worked well. The Mac’s are steeped in St. Eunan’s and Sean has been involved in managing underage teams out here since the early 80’s when he was still a player himself. Joe managed a very successful U14 team last year that won everything on offer to them including the All-Ireland Féile Div. 2 title and we’ve blooded those players into our team this year – guys like Shane O’Donnell, Daragh Ellison, Padraig McGettigan, Conor O’Donnell, Donal Higgins, Oran Winston and Dylan Duggan and they’ve served to strengthen the panel for us. We also have Ben Whelan, Niall McMenamin and Michael Shiel to be called upon if needed.
St. Eunan’s have qualified for the final after an impressive campaign saw them beat Killybegs after extra-time in the Co. League Final and after play-offs were required from their group stage of the championship they hit top gear once again to see off MacCumhaills in the Northern Final before dispatching Naomh Columba in the semi-final and that set up another meeting with MacCumhaills in the championship final and once again goals were crucial in those games to help the St. Eunan’s team get over the line. They were drawn against Fermanagh champions Derrygonnelly in the quarter-final of Ulster and a ruthless display saw them advance on a score of 7-15 to 3-06 and that set up a meeting with Derry’s O’Donovan Rossa from Magherafelt who had beaten holders, Clann Eireann from Armagh the week before. Once again the St. Eunan’s team got goals at a crucial time. They led by just two points at the short whistle (1-05 to 1-03) but two goals inside a minute early in the 2nd half from Padraig McGettigan set them on their way and they never looked back as they held the Derry champions to 2 pointed frees in the second 30 minutes to run out convincing winners on a score of 4-13 to 1-05 with Ellison and Michael Gallagher getting the other goals and that has set them up for this Saturday’s showdown with Warrenpoint who overcame Tyrone champions Killeeshil in the second semi-final on Sunday afternoon.
St. Eunan’s have enjoyed some success at Ulster level in recent years winning back-to-back Ulster Óg Sport Gael (U15 7-a-side) titles in 2013 & 2014 before reaching last year’s Ulster Minor Final where they were beaten by Crossmaglen. They also reached the Ulster Minor Final in 1993 where they were beaten by The Loup from Derry and they did manage one Ulster title in 1982 when the U13 team won the Ulster Community Games final before losing the All-Ireland semi-final after extra time… a team that was managed by a certain Sean MacIntyre!
So how does Ryan think it will go Saturday? “Hopefully the boys have one big performance left in them, they’ve been brilliant all year and it would be a nice way to finish the season – but we’ve had a great year no matter how it goes. These boys had never played in a county final as a team before this year so it’s been exceptional to watch their growth. These games turn on small things and you always need a wee rub of the green in big matches to go your way. It’s hard to make anyone favourites for a game like this – both teams have reached an Ulster final so they’re two good teams. It can go either way, but if our boys play to their potential we’ll be hard to beat and I’m sure Warrenpoint feel the same way – but hopefully Lady Luck is with us on Saturday. We’d like to say a special word to our sponsors, Tobin’s Service Station and to the Mt. Errigal Hotel for their support – it wouldn’t be possible without them.”
St. Eunan’s v Warrenpoint in Dromore (Tyrone) 2pm throw-in, Saturday November 26th.