MacRory Cup fever grips Omagh CBS and St. Michael's, Enniskillen
By Michael Devlin
MacRory Cup final fever has a way of completely taking hold of a school.
Bunting and flags drape from the ceiling of the front foyer. Player pen pics and newspaper cuttings adorn the corridor walls. Supporters’ buses are booked, imaginations are captured, and academic matters are put on the back-burner just for the time being.
Two schools a year get to experience this excitement, and this March the mania has taken over Omagh Christian Brothers School and St Michael’s College Enniskillen. At Armagh’s Athletic Grounds on Monday the Tyrone and Fermanagh colleges will contest for the most coveted prize in Ulster schools’ football.
“It’s a special occasion a MacRory Final, and especially in Tyrone as well,” says Omagh CBS teacher and team coach, Kieran Donnelly. “It’s a football mad school, so there’s that bit extra buzz about the place. It’s a good place to be this week.
“The squad, like all squads at this level, they train every Saturday morning and twice during the week. It’s a big commitment all year long, so they’re getting their rewards.”
Just 25 miles down the road in Enniskillen, St Michaels’ team assistant Gerard Donnelly has also been feeling the anticipation. They recently hosted a media day, where a BBC news camera crew came down to capture the mood around the college.
“I was covering a first-year class on Monday and they were all asking ‘Sir, what about the match?’” says Gerard. “Even people who’d usually have no interest are going.”
“We were in a Rannafast Cup final last year in Clones, and that was a big enough game. But for the sheer media interest and how the community gets so involved, the MacRory Cup swamps that. Young lads around the school are seeing the players now as idols around the place.
“For young lads playing in that, that has to be some buzz. They are not only doing this for themselves and their clubs, it’s having a huge positive impact on the school too.”
While the past week has been about keeping players’ heads in the game and their feet on the ground, the previous seven days didn’t pass without incident for Omagh CBS.
Seemingly on a winning road as the clock ticked down on their semi-final with St Patrick’s Armagh two Saturdays ago, Omagh proceeded to throw the result away in the closing moments, conceding a last-minute penalty that tied the game.
The teams reconvened in Armagh the following Wednesday night for the replay, only for heavy fog to abandon at the game at the halfway point, much to the relief of Omagh who were six points down at the moment of cancellation.
‘Take three’ at the same venue two nights later eventually settled the saga, with Omagh’s ability to get goals at crucial stages propelling them to a 5-9 to 2-10 victory.
“It was a strange week,” says Kieran Donnelly. “The first game on the Saturday we felt we should have finished it off, we were five up with two or three minutes to go but we let Armagh come back in. That’s a credit to them, they are a very good team who worked extremely hard to get back into the game.
“Wednesday was a bit of a fiasco really. The game should have never started, conditions were that bad and even after throw-in it did deteriorate quite rapidly. It meant young lads were having to get up twice for a big game, to no conclusion. It was great to finally get over the line on Friday and get into the final.”
The hope for Kieran is that the ups and downs of that trying trilogy will stand to the CBS youngsters in the big one on Monday.
“I was saying to them that it would be true test of their character as young men, and they stood up. I think, we all feel, that no matter who matter how much experience you have in the game, and I felt it personally myself, it was a tough week.
“For them to go out and perform in the end was a real bonus for us, and a tribute to young players that they could hold their heads and put in the performance at the end.”
Gerard Donnelly and Enniskillen had to endure plenty of drama of their own in their semi-final with St Patrick’s Maghera. They too would have been almost certainly heading for a replay as Maghera, just a point behind at the game’s dying breath, worked the ball across to an open shooter 20 yards from the posts.
A heroic last-gasp block by full back Garrett Kavanagh however ensured St Michael’s hung on and returned to the MacRory final since their triumph in 2012.
“It came from a silly mistake. We had a free kick and kicked it back to the keeper, and Maghera won it back. Garrett came across with that unbelievable block, and not only did he throw himself at the ball, but he then went and retrieved it. It was probably one of the most relieved I’ve ever been to hear the final whistle going.”
Gerard plays down his role in the St Michael’s setup, and instead acclaims the school’s long-time MacRory Cup team boss, and former Fermanagh and Sligo manager, Dominic Corrigan.
“Dom been around over 20 years taking MacRory teams in St Michael’s. He’s the best man you’ll get. If Dom knows he has the worst team in the MacRory Cup, they’ll get the same effort as the lads in this year’s team would have got.
“He’ll get 100 per cent out of every player no matter what, he’ll get the very best out of every group. He’s the best man I know for doing that.”
Former Down hotshot Conor Laverty is also involved on the coaching side, while current Tyrone forward Richie Donnelly, a former pupil at St Michael’s, has been offering his expertise to the squad.
“Richie is involved with us, he’s been a big supporter. He has been in the changing room a few times and takes sessions. The lads have a great relationship with him. And Conor is one of the top men about.”
Allegiances will be put to the test on Monday, as both Kieran and Gerard Donnelly have firm links with opposite camps. CBS boss Kieran, a former Fermanagh inter-county player and assistant coach, attended St Michael’s in the mid 1990’s and captained the school’s MacRory Cup team. He still has vivid recollections of his time wearing in the sky blue and claret jersey.
“We played St Colman’s Newry in a semi-final in 1995, and we lost a semi-final to St Patrick’s Armagh in the year before that by an Oisin McConville goal in the last kick of the game. Those two games still stick in your head, but I really enjoy my MacRory Cup campaigns. We were under Peter McGinnity at the time, he was a brilliant coach and I learnt a lot from him.
“As a player and then as a manager, you try to relay those past experiences across to the boys, because it is a big day for them. You try to give them as much advice as you can.”
Gerard Donnelly on the other hand is a Tyrone man through-and-through. Living in Carrickmore, he already has first-hand experience of many of the Omagh CBS players though his involvement in Tyrone county youth squads, as well as coaching at club level with Carrickmore and Dromore.
Indeed, Gerard also taught at ‘The Brothers’ and coached some of the school teams. He knows as much as anyone about the integral part football plays in the school.
“Four or five of them were on my D’Alton Cup [Under 13.5] team. From being there I know more than most how seriously the school takes their football, and the MacRory Cup in particular. They have boys in that school like Pat McNabb, Ciaran McBride, Finnian Moriarty, Conor McFlynn, top men. It’s some team of coaches throughout a football-mad school.
“But at the end of the day, this isn’t Tyrone vs Fermanagh. This is St Michael’s and Omagh CBS. I’ll be absolutely delighted if St Michael’s win, and obviously so too will be Kieran if it’s Omagh on Monday.”
Kieran Donnelly concurs. “It will be strange, but again it’s like anything, your loyalty is with these players that you coach. St Michael’s is a really good school and all of Fermanagh really get behind it, and rightly so.
“It will be strange coming up against them, but your loyalty is with the school you’re with and the boys. We have 34 fine players here and it’s a special relationship, because you’re training them in what’s almost like a professional setup in school because you’re seeing them every day. Our full focus will be on Omagh CBS.”
St Michael’s boast a slightly better MacRory Cup record than CBS – six titles to Omagh’s four – but the history books won’t decide Monday’s winner according to Gerard Donnelly, who believes Enniskillen are “huge underdogs” going into the game.
From a county of only twenty football clubs, St Michael’s historically attracted the best young Fermanagh footballers, as well as some just across the Tyrone county line. For instance, Trillick clubmen and current Tyrone stars Richie and Mattie Donnelly and Lee and Rory Brennan all attended the school.
This year’s cohort however all hail from Fermanagh clubs, and even at that, they no longer enjoy the same pick of the county’s young talent as years gone by.
“MacRory Cups were the norm around St Michael’s in the early 2000’s, this was the place where everyone would have come, but now a lot of young lads are going to other places, the likes of St Kevin’s in Lisnaskea and South West College Enniskillen,” says Gerard.
“A MacRory team of all Fermanagh boys, when you think of that, it’s a real credit. These boys have really stuck at it, and Dom has taken it to a new level with these boys.
“Our lads are huge underdogs for this game. The media focus is one of the problems though. The lads know the TV cameras are there, it’s a big occasion. A few of our lads would have played in big minor finals in the past, but that would be the biggest. There’d be no-one like Antoin Fox for Omagh CBS who’s played an All-Ireland U17 final in Croke Park.”
It’s all part and parcel though of overcoming the nerves and delivering a performance on the big day. “Like any final, you just want everyone to perform,” says Gerard. “People talk about how losing a semi-final is worse as you miss out on the occasion of a final, but if you get to a final and you don’t win it, you may as well be beat in the first round. All you want is for those lads to come off the field with no regrets.”
For Kieran Donnelly and Omagh CBS, who tasted defeat back in the 2014 final, ‘occasion’ is again the word that comes to the fore.
“We were unlucky that day in 2014, we came up against an excellent Maghera team, but in the school’s history, we’ve been involved in quite a few.
“There’s nothing like it. All past players come back and support the school, it’s such a big occasion and we’re delighted to be there. It should be a great final.”